‘I am an overcomer’
“I was devastated,” exclaimed Marcia Johnson*. “I was just 18 years old at the time, and I felt like my whole world had fallen apart,” she said.
On a routine check while pregnant with her only child, Johnson received the news nobody wants to hear. “I tested positive for HIV, and I can tell you this was not something I ever wanted to hear. That night I didn’t sleep,” she said.
Johnson, after receiving her results from the clinic, went home and confronted her child’s father. It was not an easy stand-off, and after the altercation, she ended the relationship with him. After several checks, she also discovered that her child’s father was aware that he had HIV and did not disclose this to her.
“It was not easy for me at all. Just imagine being pregnant and having HIV, not to mention the stigma associated with the illness in Jamaica. I really worried how I would be able to live a normal and regular life,” she said.
“I told no one I have the illness, not even my child, even to this day. I was a bright girl, and back then, it was challenging for persons who had it. I wondered if I would ever find my purpose in life,” she added.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to infections and diseases. It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person living with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex, or through sharing injectable drug equipment.
HIV can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
The human body cannot get rid of HIV and no effective HIV cure exists. So, once you have HIV, you have it for life.
However, by taking HIV medicine, called antiretroviral therapy, or ART, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives. In addition, there are effective methods to prevent getting HIV through sex or drug use, including pre and post-exposure prophylaxis.
Fifteen years later, Johnson has been able to live a normal life. She has not had any symptoms, but started taking antiretroviral medication in the latter part of this year.
“I decided that I would take my life upwards. I stayed positive, and I kept telling myself that I am an overcomer. After the initial stages of coming to terms with the fact that I had the illness, my motivational level was very high and I became my biggest cheerleader,” she said.
For persons living with HIV, Johnson is encouraging them to seek support and treatment, and become knowledgeable about the illness; and for those who do not know, she is encouraging them to get tested. “Get tested and know your status. It is also important to stay motivated, and stay on the medication; eating right and exercise is very important,” she said.
It is estimated that approximately 40,000 people are living with HIV in Jamaica, and as many as half of them do not know their status. The demographic with the highest rate of new infections is women age nine to 19 years old, and the prevalence rate of HIV among men who have sex with men is 38 per cent.
Gender prevalence among adults age 15 to 49 years shows women at 1.3 per cent, compared to men at 2.1 per cent. Out of the 40,000 Jamaicans living with HIV, approximately 11,000 are on treatment.
*Name changed upon request