HIV response penetrates apostolic sects

Despite the strides being made to end Aids by 2030, in some sectors of the Zimbabwean society, religion has become an impediment. When one acquires the virus through peri-natal transmission, they usually have to go through various dilemmas, ranging from status disclosure to religious doctrines.

Worse still, in some communities, stigmatisation is still rampant.

Nineteen-year-old Maidei (not her real name) was born with HIV but could not access healthcare as her church forbids it.

Maidei is a member of an apostolic sect that does not accept modern medicine.

“My religious leaders claim that they can cure HIV ” said Maidei.

“I grew up a weakling without any idea what I was suffering from. Worse still, my parents were told that I would get better. To which I didn’t.

“However, it was only through Africaid-Zvandiri four years ago that I learnt my life would be improved only if I get initiated on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) which will in turn make my HIV viral load undetectable by adhering to antiretroviral medication.”

Maidei is now taking her medication and is also helping 45 other children, adolescents and young people living with HIV, bringing care and treatment services to their doorsteps through the USAid-supported Community Adolescent Treatment Supporter (CATS) programme.

The CATS programme was established in 2009 with the aim of providing community-based treatment, adherence, monitoring and counselling for youths living with HIV.

USAid is supporting over 500 CATS, just like Maidei, to reach more than 32 000 children, adolescents and young people living with HIV.

Over the years, Maidei witnessed adolescents in her church succumb to HIV because the church leaders discouraged them from accessing health care services, including HIV testing, treatment and care.

At the risk of being ex-communicated from the church, Maidei defied her church doctrine and started seeking health services for herself and her peers.

“I felt that I should be at the forefront of supporting my peers in my community, no young person should die because religious beliefs don’t allow them to access health services,” she said.

With hope and determination, Maidei is making strides in the HIV response.

In 2015, Maidei became very sick and due to their religious beliefs, her mother was afraid to take her to the hospital. Realising that she could lose her daughter, Maidei’s mother took her aunt’s advice and both got tested for HIV.

Both Maidei and her mother tested HIV-positive.

“My mother was devastated by the results, she never thought I would survive. However, after counselling from the health care worker, she was encouraged to give me support. Since then, I have been taking my medication and also attending Zvandiri support groups,” she said, looking hopeful.

Since starting treatment, Maidei’s health has improved and she is now using her personal experience to empower other HIV-positive adolescents and young people to be resilient and determined.

According to the 2017 Zimbabwe HIV Estimates and Projections Report (MOHCC, 2018), approximately 77 000 children and 69 000 adolescents are living with HIV.

Despite significant advances in access to treatment and a decline in deaths due to HIV, HIV-related mortality among children and adolescents in Zimbabwe remains high.

Currently, Maidei supports 45 peers by empowering them to cope with disclosing their HIV status to significant others, strictly adhering to treatment, and confidently handling their own psycho-social and sexuality issues in order to prevent secondary infection.

And for most of the time, if Maidei is not at a clinic supporting newly diagnosed HIV-positive peers, she can be found helping peers in the community.

For Maidei, this is more than just work, it is her own way of empowering her peers living with HIV to dare to dream again. Some of the peers she supports live as far away as 10 kilometres from her home, yet for Maidei, as she cycles to their homes, this is her own version of “cycling for hope”.

With support from USAid and the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Africaid has trained CATS like Maidei from four districts (Mutare, Makoni, Buhera and Chipinge) to distribute over 4 200 self-test kits and encourage adolescents and young people to self-test.

Since becoming a CATS, Maidei is on a mission to promote uptake of HIV self-testing among untested adolescents, young people and their sexual partners, particularly in her church community.

“I will never give up on my peers, my wish is to see them live a happy healthy life,” explained Maidei.

Maidei, one of the top students in her class, sees a great future ahead.

“I am studying Advanced Level Mathematics, Business Studies and Economics and my wish is to become an economist.”

Since 2017, USAid has been supporting Africaid to scale up and expand its innovative Zvandiri model over five years in 22 priority districts in Zimbabwe.

USAid-Zimbabwe Mission director, Stephanie Funk said, “USAid is proud to partner with Africaid to help Zimbabwean children and adolescents live longer and healthier lives. The United States stands with the people of Zimbabwe in an effort to end the HIV epidemic.”

HIV is one of the leading causes of mortality in children under five and accounts for 21 percent of children deaths in Zimbabwe. More than 2 400 children and 1 500 adolescents died of HIV-related conditions in 2017.

The US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPfAR), through USAid and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has provided nearly $1 billion to Zimbabwe over the last decade for HIV prevention, care, and treatment services.

PEPfAR has contributed to major successes in the fight against HIV in Zimbabwe.

The annual number of HIV-related deaths has declined 83 percent since 2003.

The number of new HIV infections each year has decreased 50 percent since 2003.

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