Austin Gama was in his late 20s when he declared his HIV status to his community in Ntcheu. He has lived positively since 1999.
At first, Gama faced a lot of stigma, and it was unthinkable that he would one day declare his HIV status.
However, he says the stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and Aids (PLWHA) makes it hard for some to declare their status, let alone get tested. Such people, Gama says, end up spreading the virus.
This is why Gama is promoting respect of human dignity regardless of oneâ€™s HIV status. He says this can be achieved by voluntarily testing and counselling (VCT), non-discrimination and positive living, among other things.
His efforts are backed by PLWHAs who founded the Malawi Network of People Living with HIV and Aids (Manet+) in 1997 as a coordinating and facilitating body.
â€œThere are people out there who know they are positive, but they infect innocent people, especially young girls, deliberately. They say tipite ambiri [we should die in numbers]. This shows how inhuman some people can be. We also engage chiefs to sensitise their people on the importance of living positively,â€ says Gama.
Jauma Lester, 41, a vegetable seller at Kachere Market in Blantyre agrees with Gama. He says government should introduce incentives such as soft loans for PLWHAs to encourage people to get tested.
â€œWith soft loans, people will be assured of living an economically independent life even when they are HIV positive,â€ Lester says.
But the Standard Seven dropout and father of one blames his sickness on witchcraft. He tested positive when doctors advised him to go for VCT while he was admitted to Chiradzulu District Hospital in 2004. The following year, Lester decided to declare his status publicly to encourage others to get tested.
â€œPeople fear their businesses or jobs would crumble if found with the virus as the general feeling is that they would be discriminated against. With soft loan, they would be empowered economically and use the profits to buy drugs and nutritious food,â€ says Lester.
Lester and Gama, were speaking during this yearâ€™s Candlelight Memorial commemorated on May 22 under the theme â€˜promoting human health and dignity together.â€™
The memorial event in Blantyre was dominated by calls for government to make available more CD4 count machines in health facilities, saying currently very few hospitals have them.
The machines would easily assist in determining when one could be put on ARVs. Local campaigners claim the present status is that the countryâ€™s health facilities have few CD4 count machines with some not even having one or two.
â€œThose who have the virus should be exemplary in their lifestyle,â€ Irene Mtefula says, another person living with the virus, adding bactrim should be available in clinics to supplement ARVs.
In 2000, Gama and Lester through the National Association for People Living with HIV and Aids (Napham) took it upon themselves to provide awareness on HIV and Aids testing services. They have since been sensitising people to the risks of multiple sexual partners and have been lobbying for improved health care.
To help create understanding of human health and dignity together, Manaso and Blantyre City teamed up during a Candlelight Memorial event launched in 1983 to remember the deaths caused by Aids. Malawi and other countries globally are said to have lost more than 18 million people to Aids.
The national event took place in Lilongwe, and Vice-President Khumbo Kachali stressed the need for people to get tested. However, Malawiâ€™s success in HIV and Aids mitigation programme is said to be overshadowed by the continued new infections estimated at 50 000 annually.
Manet+ chairperson Bertha Sefu called on government and other sectors to roll out drugs that do not cause deformities.
Malawi is estimated to have close to one million people living with the virus. Fresh statistics indicate that the prevalence rate is at 10.6 percent representing a drop from 12 percent.
UNAids Malawi office says Malawi has registered success in managing the epidemic in areas of nutrition and social cash transfer for the effected, prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission and universal access to ART.