Conquering the dreaded HIV virus . . . Westerhof clocks two decades living with infection

Conquering the dreaded HIV virus . . . Westerhof clocks two decades living with infection
18 JUN, 2023 – 00:06
Theseus Shambare

WHILE being diagnosed with HIV can be terrifying for some people, for others, like former top model Ms Tendayi Westerhof (56), living with the virus has become a lifestyle.

Having been diagnosed in 2002, very few people thought she could live to celebrate her 50th birthday, let alone be in good health.

Back then, stigma against people living with HIV and AIDS was common, while access to life-saving medication was difficult.

In a move many considered unthinkable at the time, she decided to disclose her status to the world.

She, therefore, became the face and voice of the fight against HIV and a heroine among those living with the virus.

On Thursday, Ms Westerhof will be celebrating her 57th birthday.

The mother of four is among the estimated 272 000 people above the age of 50 living with HIV in Zimbabwe.

“HIV is not a death sentence,” she told The Sunday Mail last week.

“It can be managed.”

She said her obsession with having a balanced diet and religiously taking medication was the secret to her longevity.

“Just as every other human being, people with HIV need a balanced diet to enable their body to fight diseases.”

Getting tested early, she said, was crucial in order to live a long life.

“Because, from the day you know that you are HIV positive or you are living with HIV, you may need to change your whole way of living.

“Living with HIV needs a commitment and one has to make it a lifestyle.”

After knowing one’s status, there was also a need to abstain from risky sexual behaviour to limit chances of reinfection and to protect one’s loved ones.

The secret to living a long life with the virus, said Ms Westerhof, starts with accepting one’s status and dealing with the stigma.

More importantly, one needs to be enrolled on antiretroviral therapy (ART) early.

“This stops the virus from developing into full-blown AIDS.

“This is where the lifestyle part comes because one needs to know exactly when to take their medication at the prescribed time and quantities every day.”

Religiously taking antiretroviral medicines helps reduce the viral load, which, in some cases, may lead to the virus becoming undetectable and untransmittable.

Ms Westerhof said she has managed to suppress her viral load to undetectable levels.

She praised the Government’s policy of immediately enrolling those who test HIV positive in the “Test and Treat” programme.

“You don’t have to wait for so many days or weeks to be enrolled,” she said.

“You are immediately put on treatment and this has worked a lot.

“You get stronger and stronger by the day.”

Ms Westerhof said those who experience side effects from the treatment must seek medical assistance, where they can be asked to switch to another treatment regimen that suits them.

According to a recent UNAIDS Gap Report, people living with HIV could hardly live beyond the age of 50.

However, with the use of ART, the number of survivors beyond this age is now continuously rising.

Moreover, the life expectancy of a person living with HIV, who achieves and maintains viral suppression through antiretroviral therapy, is now similar to that of an individual who has not acquired HIV.

Ms Westerhof is currently the national director of Pan-African Positive Women’s Coalition Zimbabwe and also sits on various boards of entities that deal with HIV-positive people.

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