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‘I was infected with HIV at 3 months’

DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
BEFORE clocking 10 years, she had undergone her first major operation; a lumbar puncture in Ndola. The first lumbar puncture operation was at the age of eight in 2000. Another was done when she was 11 in 2003.
All operations were done successfully at University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka and Ndola Central Hospital.
In the same year, she was diagnosed with HIV. Today, Rose Mbewe stands tall and openly speaks about her journey after being infected with AIDS at the age of 3 months.
This happened after she lost her mother in 1991 and because there was no options on how her mother’s family would sustain her, Rose’s grandmother decided to ask for a favour from her sister-in-law to breastfeed her following the demise of her mother.
“I was infected at 3 months by my grandmother’s sister-in-law who breast-fed me after my mother died. She didn’t know she was HIV-positive,” Rose says.
And because of her failing immune system she has had three tuberculosis infections. One in 1999, 2001 and 2006.
When she started taking anti-retroviral drugs at the age of 11, Rose says she devoted herself to building a future where she could mentor many adolescents facing similar situations like hers.
Rose was born HIV-negative on February 24, 1992 in Lusaka’s Chaisa Township. When she was three months old, her mother died of heart failure. Her grandmother’s sister-in-law offered to continue breastfeeding her, oblivious of her HIV status. The culture of breast-feeding other people’s children then was very common.
“I will forever remain grateful to the gesture that my grandmother’s sister-in-law showed by accepting to breastfeed me because had it not been for her, I would not have been here to tell this story,” she says.
Narrating her ordeal, Rose says she has gone through rejection because of her openness regarding her status.
Two years ago, Rose was dumped by her first boyfriend after disclosing her HIV status.
“I did the honest thing by disclosing my status to my boyfriend. We had been in a relationship for two years and because we were advancing and talking about marriage, I decided to disclose my status to him”.
“After telling him, he decided that he should tell his relatives too so that they do not hear it from outsiders,” Rose says.
His relatives did not approve of the relationship and so he decided to end the relationship.
“That was one of the painful moments in my life. I felt life was not worth living but my inner self told me not to give up,” Rose says.
Rose, who is an only child, did her education at Chaisa Primary School and later, Kasamba Secondary. She then proceeded and did a short course in computer studies.
“My mother had eight miscarriages before she had me and this I am told affected her life and dad’s. My dad died when mum was five months pregnant with me. Issues surrounding my mother’s miscarriages contributed to his death as there was too much friction in the family,” Rose says.
As if that was not enough, on October 5, 2013, Rose lost her grandmother, the only close relative she had after the death of her biological parents.
Fortunately for her though, her grandmother made sure she was well taken care off even in her death by ensuring that she was the sole beneficiary of her estate.
“I manage my grandmother’s few houses that are on rent and that is what is keeping me going. I have not found a job yet and I wholly rely on the rentals I collect for my upkeep, so I am well-taken care off in that area,” she says.
Considering that 2014 World AIDS day theme is Zero stigma, Rose says stigma is contributing to the high number of adolescents dying of AIDS because of failure to access treatment.
Currently, HIV prevalence in Zambia has not decreased among adolescents aged 15-19 between 2007 and 2012.
The global AIDS death toll fell to 30 percent between 2005 and 2012 but increased by 50 percent among adolescents, says a recent UNICEF report.
Furthermore, the UNICEF report indicates that in Zambia 4,400 adolescents died of AIDS in 2013 alone.
Alarmingly, adolescent HIV prevalence is highly gendered, with teen girls showing infection rates that UNAIDS calls ‘unacceptably high.’
Adolescents become sexually active, try drugs and alcohol, feel invulnerable, and experience the social and economic pressures of becoming an adult. HIV and the lack of youth-friendly health services compound the problem, says the UNICEF report.
For Rose, one reason for this shocking teen death toll is the low number of adolescents on antiretroviral treatment (ART).
Rejection by family and society or fear of rejection, according to Rose, prevents adolescents from seeking help.
Teenagers’ adherence to ART is lower than adults, says Rose “for a range of reasons like treatment fatigue, depression, fear of stigma, denial and unstable family relationships.”
One recommendation that Rose would love to see to fruition is the delivering of information about child protection and sexual and reproductive health services to teens living with HIV so they can make safe life choices and access care and support.
Today, despite being HIV positive, Rose is a proud and confident young woman who remains committed to speaking up on ills affecting other young people in accessing HIV treatment in her community.

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