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HIV/AIDS: How to live a normal life

Did you know? More often than not, having HIV can also be a blessing. Knowing that their health is at risk, many HIV-positive people take steps to become much healthier, they exercise more and eat right, and this in turn stops them from developing lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, which are all far more likely to end your life prematurely. Even if they develop these conditions they are more likely to be diagnosed earlier and be better controlled.

It’s important to know that HIV is no longer a death sentence. You can live a long life with a near to normal life expectancy, even if you have HIV.

We now know about many outstanding leaders in society who continue to live normal healthy lives despite having HIV. For instance, renowned film director and AIDS activist, Zackie Achmat, has lived with HIV for over 30 years. Edwin Cameron, a former judge for the Constitutional Court (the highest court in the land) and current chancellor of Stellenbosch University, has had HIV since 1986. Gospel music star Musa Njoka has survived HIV for 20 years after being given 3 months to live. Former basketball pro Magic Johnson has had HIV since 1991. Rugby player and captain of the Welsh rugby team Gareth Thomas announced in 2019 that he has HIV. They and many others like them, both men and women, have gone on to live extraordinary lives.

So can you, and so you should.

Why you need to take ARVs for HIV/AIDS treatment

Since the mid-1990s, combination therapies of ARVs (anti-retroviral medication) have been very effective at reducing the effects of HIV. Which means that today, ARV treatments make it possible for anyone infected with HIV to fall in love, have sex, have fulfilling relationships, marry, have children (without passing on HIV) – all the things that people who don’t have HIV do.

For a pregnant woman living with HIV, taking ARVs correctly during pregnancy and breastfeeding can virtually eliminate the risk of passing on the virus to her baby. A reputable clinic or specialist HIV physician can assist you with the right treatment.

ARVs are very successful in inhibiting the progress of the HIV virus, which attacks the body’s CD4 cells (which the immune system needs to fend off diseases) and weakens the body’s ability to fight infection. There are several ARV classes, viz. reverse transcriptase inhibitors, protease inhibitors and integrase inhibitors, which block viral enzymes thereby preventing replication of the virus in CD4 cells. While you will always have the virus in your blood (as there is no cure) as long as you take your ARVs, your health will be fine and the amount of virus in your system will be reduced.

What should I do if I have HIV, or if I don’t know my status?

Not knowing your HIV status if you’re an adult is unwise. It is best to make an appointment with your doctor to have your HIV status checked by testing.

If you test positive, your doctor is likely to recommend that you start ARV treatment as soon as possible, to boost your immune system. ARVs have some side effects such as diarrhoea and fatigue, but these usually pass within a few weeks. If they do not, then consult your doctor for alternatives. Also, some ARVs tend to raise your cholesterol levels, so your doctor will recommend a healthy diet and exercise and may also recommend medication to control your cholesterol.

Should I be worried about having HIV during Covid-19?

The encouraging news is that Covid-19 is very much a survivable disease, even if you are HIV-positive. The important thing is to continue taking your ARVs to suppress HIV and improve your CD4 count.

When your body’s immune system is functioning as it should, it’s able to fight off the Covid-19 infection, which works more like a cold or flu, attacking the respiratory system only in severe cases. Provided you are taking ARVs, your body is able to fight this virus and will destroy it. However, remember that Covid-19 complicates other underlying conditions (comorbidities) such as high blood pressure and diabetes, leading to increased risk – if you have a comorbidity, you should consult your doctor about additional health precautions.

Dealing with guilt, anger and depression

Being angry with yourself for contracting HIV is like being angry with the mosquito that gave you malaria, or being upset with your parents for being genetically predisposed to cancer. Viruses are biologically programmed to seek out hosts to infect for their own survival – that’s how they’re made.

In addition, every human being will have some form of health crisis in their lives – this just happens to be yours. With the right ARV treatment and following a healthy lifestyle, you will be able to lead a normal, healthy life, with a normal lifespan.

For more information on HIV please contact:

Dr S Mashamaite, HIV Clinician
MBChB (Natal), MPH (Unisa), Dip HIV Man (CMSA)
Zamokuhle Private Hospital
Tel: +27 11 923 7785
Cell: +27 72 905 5983
Email: drsello@drsellomashamaite.co.za

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.