Like most people who had HIV/AIDS in the 1990s, Lameck, a poor subsistence farmer and bike mechanic in Macha, refused to believe he had the disease when he tested positive in 1992. In those early days of HIV/AIDS on the continent, which some call the “Decade of Fear”, millions of Africans unknowingly spread the disease and went to early graves after hiding their fate as long as they could.
“I didn’t believe it,” Lameck said about his first positive diagnosis. “I didn’t accept it. I was up and down sick. I tried to get medications from many people even traditional medicine.”
The stigma of having AIDS, which is still apparent today in small doses, caused HIV positive Africans to be shunned by society, even by family, and then die miserable deaths in the 1990s. Furthermore because there were no drugs then to combat HIV/AIDS people lived agonizing, debilitating lives and millions died. In fact, as US Ambassador to the Republic of Zambia, Mark C. Storella, said in a meeting at the US Embassy in Lusaka, “People were dying en masse. Health challenges can destroy whole societies.”
Without the advancement of medical technology and PEPFAR millions of Africans would have died from HIV/AIDS. Now, Africans are living fulfilling, productive lives by simply taking their prescribed dose of ARVs each day.
Lameck was one of the lucky ones who survived that first decade of fear only to enter into a new century where anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) are available for life, for free. Today, we hear a different story about Zambia. Nearly half a million Zambians are being kept alive by ARVs provided in part by PEPFAR and the Global Fund with increased monetary spending from Zambia. In Zambia, the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate was 14.3 percent as determined by the 2007 census, making it an epidemic in the country. Zambia’s goal is to reduce the number of new cases to under one percent. New estimates say the prevalence rate is now down to 12.5 percent, but that number won’t be confirmed until the new census rolls around.
In Lameck’s case ARVs were not readily available in the southern province of Zambia around Macha where he lives until 2004 when drugs could be attained from the nearest, biggest city, Livingstone. Those who had the means drove three hours on rocky, red clay roads in 4x4s to Livingstone from Choma and Macha to get their drugs. But then by 2005, ARVs were readily accessible to everyone. It is in that year Lameck went to check his status again. After being in debilitating back and abdominal pain for years because of his positive status, Lameck finally accepted that he was HIV positive and began taking ARVs. He then married his third wife who was HIV negative in that year as well. Today, she is still negative because they use preventive measures.
“Every time I go to the hospital I am okay,” Lameck told us. “More than twenty years with this virus, I thank the Lord and his medicines I am living. I can run, do exercises, and fix bicycles. I get my living by fixing bicycles at the market.”
Lameck’s story is like many Zambians and Africans as a whole. The HIV/AIDS prevalence numbers, while quite high in many countries, are going down or a high-level priority for those countries that cannot control the disease. People like Lameck are living normal lives. Now, it is only a matter of making sure opportunistic infections like TB and cervical cancer stay at bay.
I am reporting from Zambia as an International Reporting Project Zambia Fellow.