Africans in Britain Say AIDS Treatment There is Keeping Them Alive

The United Nations says the percentage of people living with the HIV virus that leads to AIDS has leveled off.  Despite the trend, the U.N. warns there is no room for complacency. As the world marks World AIDS Day on December 1, Tendai Maphosa visited an AIDS support center in Luton, near London and spoke with HIV positive Africans on how conditions in Britain make it easier for them to live with their condition. They were reluctant to give their full names and countries of origin.

Statistics indicate that the percentage of people living with HIV has leveled off and the number of new infections has also dropped.  The United Nations says this is good news, but cautions that there are still an estimated 33 million people living with HIV, nearly 70 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts attribute the decline in new infections to HIV prevention efforts, and they say the decline in mortality rates from HIV-AIDS is due in part to the availability of anti-retroviral drugs.

The Centre for African Positive Health in Luton was established with funding from the National Lottery. It offers support to those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. 

"Most affected people, at least in this area, are from the African community and the services could be like maybe getting somebody to talk to, who understands exactly where they are coming from, maybe in terms of language, if there is a language barrier, even simple things like food, providing a place where people could meet and share experiences," said Juliet Reid, who is originally from Uganda and helped found the center. 

Martha, who has AIDS, says she lost two brothers to the disease in Africa because there was no treatment. But when she became ill in Britain and tested positive for the virus, she immediately went on treatment and she takes the drugs as prescribed. This, she says, has given her the chance that her brothers did not have.

"If I don't take my medication, I know something is missing," she added.  "I have to go back straight away and take it. I am a normal person.  Sometimes I forget that I am on medication. I just feel like a normal person unless when I am taking the medication, that's when it reminds me that I am living with HIV."

James, his wife and their fourteen year-old son are all HIV positive, but they are able to manage their condition and live a relatively normal life. They say even though they get homesick, going back to Africa is not an option at the moment.

"I don't have any plans to go back to Africa any time soon, because my country of origin is having serious problems," he said.  "So, even if I was to consider going back, I don't think I was going to get any employment, then I won't be assured of getting medication. I won't be able to pay for my medication.  There is no free medication when it comes to HIV and AIDS in my country of origin."

Maria is in her 30s and found out she is HIV positive after she moved to the United Kingdom. In 2005, she contracted meningitis and was in a coma for five weeks. When she came to she was blind.

"It's been very, very difficult, it's been hard. I spent almost a year in hospital," she recalled.  "I have partial hearing, and I wear a hearing aid on one side and on the left side I am deaf. Now I am okay.  I went to a rehab hospital where they taught me how to walk again, to feed myself and I am still learning how to get my bearings."

She says she would be dead if this happened back home in Africa.

For people with access to anti-retroviral treatment, being HIV positive is not the death sentence it used to be.  But many HIV positive people in Africa continue to face the daunting hurdles of poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to treatment.

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