“It’s been a year now since I tested HIV-positive but I haven’t disclosed my status to my husband because I’m afraid he’ll divorce me,” says a very irritated Martha (not her real name).
Martha has been robbed of her peace of mind for almost a year because she fears her husband might not understand her situation.
At times, Martha, who got married to a truck driver two years ago, feels like breaking the news to her husband so that he, too, should go for Voluntary Counselling and Testing. That will enable them to start using condoms- whether he tests positive or negative- as advised by counsellors.
The couple has quarrelled several times because of her husband’s promiscuity. Her husband takes to commercial sex workers on regular basis whenever he is on the road.
“I was not too shocked when I tested positive, even though I have been faithful to my husband. In fact, I knew this would happen because of my husband’s irresponsible behaviour,” she says.
The most important thing she is doing, she says, is to ensure she does not transmit the virus to her baby.
Martha, who is based in Blantyre, tested positive when she was pregnant last year and was immediately counselled on how to avoid infecting the HIV-negative baby.
“Each and every pregnant woman is supposed to undergo HIV testing, and this is a must, whether she likes it or not. The idea is to prevent babies from contacting HIV from their mothers. We believe that these are presidents, ministers, managers in the making and, so, who shall lead the country to prosperity if they get infected?” wondered Dr. Mary Shawa, Principal Secretary for the Department of HIV/Aids and Nutrition in the Office of the President and Cabinet.
Shawa disclosed that the decision was made after it had come to the attention of the department that most pregnant women were testing positive.
The intention of OPC is to prevent babies from being infected through what is called Prevention from Mother to Child Transmission (PMTC).
Meanwhile, most research findings seem to suggest that most married couples that have tested HIV-positive got infected through the unfaithfulness of their partners.
In some cases, however, one partner may test positive while the other negative. The couple is then said to be sero-discordant.
It is because of this phenomenon that the College of Medicine-Johns Hopkins Research Project, which is into various studies on HIV and Aids in the country, is currently carrying out a study among sero-discordant couples aimed at finding out how and why this happens.
It also seeks to find out whether discordant couples can stay together for longer periods without infecting each other.
The project’s Field Coordinator, Fatima Zulu, said the study would help to keep couples in marriage even though they have registered different results. Experience has shown that some marriages break up when one partner, especially the woman, tests positive.
The irony, however, as Zulu noted, is that in most cases marriages last longer if it is the man who tests positive as he dictates terms on his spouse. This often includes the issue of having unprotected sex, thereby infecting her as well.
“Women are more vulnerable to divorce when they test positive. We are, therefore, urging more men to participate in the study with their wives so that we make them understand the significance of not divorcing their spouses, because definitely, they will miss their support,” Zulu said.
The study encourages couples to consistently use condoms each time they have sex. The study will further assist couples to remain healthy through counselling and giving them recommended medications so that the infected person does not develop Aids quickly.
Zulu observed that most discordant couples develop Aids earlier because of lack of proper and adequate counselling as well as poor medical services.
Each volunteering sero-discordant couple is expected to participate in the study for five years.