Everybody knows this deadly disease. Some have heard about what it can do. Many in Sub-Saharan Africa have seen and witnessed how it has shuttered people’s lives and dreams leaving many orphans and single parents. Growing up in Zambia, a country with 13.5% prevalence rate amongst ages between 15-49, I remember being taught and reading about dangers of HIV/AIDS as early as primary school. Do not share sharp instruments like razor blades, do not touch other people’s blood, do not engage in unprotected sex, do not be promiscuous, you can never tell by looking whether one has the disease ,e.t.c. HIV was viewed as a “dream killer ” because once you had it, you lost hope and were less motivated to fight for the future you expected since the predominant thought on your mind was your eventual death.
In Saturday Is For Funerals Judge Unity Dow and Harvard Lasker Professor Max Essex eloquently tell the tales of how individuals and families have been affected by this pandemic and the efforts science and research are doing to better their lives. They poignantly capture the emotions at play when a person who dreams of a successful and meaningful life suddenly realizes he/she has been infected by his/her spouse; when parents who are HIV positive die living their children in the custody of extended family(or grandparents) who have no money to pay for school fees and support an extended family; when people take their ARVs in private places such as toilets because they are afraid their friends will discover they have THE disease; when people watch many of their beloved family members get killed slowly but pitifully by the disease; when communities have so many funerals that almost every Saturday they have funerals or bury close friends and family.
I was one of those who thought that when one has the virus, one’s life is over and one’s dreams are shuttered. Despite having heard of HIV/AIDS activists and inspirational individuals who had the disease, I still could not fathom how one could still have hope when they were faced with this death sentence. After all, all the short stories I read in primary school were about people who got infected and died after having lived promiscuous lives.
Saturday Is For Funerals has changed my perspective and shown me that Saturday does not have to be for funerals. With the introduction of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART) which involves the combination of 3 ARV drugs ,two Nucleoside Reverse trancriptase inhibitors (NRTI) and one Non Nucleside reverse Transcriptase inhibitor (NNRTI), people now have the chance to live the life they would have imagined. Including having negative children. This prospect however relies on their taking their medication and never skipping a day lest the virus becomes resistant. HIV is unique from most viruses because it has RNA which is reverse transcribed to DNA which then integrates into our genome. Reverse Transcription to DNA is achieved by highly error prone Polymerase hence leading to mutations that enable the virus to keep changing its morphology leaving our immune system one step behind the virus; when we develop antibodies for one strain, it would have developed another strain. HAART treatment has also enabled medical personnel to prevent the transmission of mother to child by using a NRTI called nevi-rapine hence reducing the number of infected innocent kids.
Saturday no longer has to be for funerals if people are further empowered through sensitization to overcome the stigma and feeling of inadequacy that are associated with having the disease. While HAART does not cure HIV, it does help reduce the viral load so that infected individuals are less likely to transmit the virus to their spouses or their children.
I am super excited to be working at Botswana-Harvard Partnership in Gaborone which is one of the largest HIV research institutes in Southern Africa and is run by Lasker Professor Max Essex. I am looking forward to conducting bench-work research, learning more about how HIV/AIDS is affecting people in Botswana by volunteering at the hospital and also helping in studies involving prevention/spread of the HIV in villages close to Gaborone.
Infected individuals still have hope and they can still try to live the life they wished. Science is making progress towards better understanding the virus and ,hopefully, finding the cure in the future.
First time in New York