Musa Njoko: 17 years and going strong
1 December 2011
She had been an asthma sufferer since the age of 12, an affliction she really never outgrew. At 22, it seemed as though the lung disease had reared its ugly head again.
As usual, she went to see her doctor for her monthly asthma checkup. At the time it sounded a bit strange when he suggested she have an HIV test done as she was not responding well to her prescribed medication as in the past.
"The doctor said that I kind of fit the profile of an HIV positive person."
And true to his suspicion, she was told that she was HIV-positive, something that never existed in her world.
"I was devastated and frustrated. I didn't know how it was transmitted and how I ended up with the virus. There was a lot of confusion at the time because the doctor told me that I had three months to live," she says.
Aids activist, gospel artist
Today, 39-year-old Nomusa Njoko, fondly known as Musa, is one of South Africa's best-known Aids activists - and also one of the country's most sought-after gospel artists.
"I contracted the virus from a partner that I had at the time," Njoko says. "I then decided to inform my former partner. We were no longer together at the time. It was a short-lived relationship. I told him and, based on his reaction, it seemed as if he already knew."
The WHO/UNAids estimated the number of people living with HIV in South Africa at 5.575-million in 2010. Of these, an estimated 518 000 were children under 15 years, while 2.95-million were adult females over the age of 15.
At 22, Njoko was like any other young adult, trying to figure out who she really was, enjoying life with her friends and family.
'I had to grow up in that moment'
"I had to grow up in that moment," she says. "I had to think differently compared to other 22-year-olds. I had to mature, I had to grow up and deal with issues that other 22-year-olds didn't have to think about."
While initially in shock, her family supported her throughout her illness, as they still do till this day.
"There was a lot of frustration and confusion, but fortunately, we are a strong Christian-based family, so we were able to get through everything together."
In 1995, when she publicly disclosed her status, some members of her community were hostile towards her.
At that time, says Njoko, treatment for the virus was not available. "We had more challenges in those days. You basically had to become your own research ... Information back then was complicated, and it was available for scientists and medical practitioners. It slowly started being interpreted into layman's language."
In 2009, South African President Jacob Zuma announced life-changing policies that included HIV-positive people with a CD4 count of 350 or less receiving free anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment; pregnant HIV-positive women with a CD4 count of 350 or with symptoms, regardless of their CD4 count, getting access to treatment, and HIV-positive pregnant women being put on treatment at 14 weeks to protect the baby.
The government's HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) campaign was launched in April 2010 as part of a nationwide initiative to get at least 15-million South Africans to know their HIV status. By the end of June this year, the campaign had reached over 14.7-million South Africans.
'More needs to be done to educate people'
Njoko commends the government's response to the virus, but adds that more still needs to be done to educate people.
"Up until recently, government has been generally reactive. But we are now seeing government being proactive," she says. "The President made major announcements and interventions two years ago. And with the introduction of the NHI [National Health Insurance] soon, those who are HIV-positive will have better access to treatment."
Zuma launched the new National Strategic Plan (NSP) on HIV/Aids 2012-16 on Thursday, World Aids Day.
One of the key decisions included in the plan is the development of a single integrated strategy for HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and Tuberculosis (TB).
Tackling HIV and TB together
This is primarily due to the high co-infection rate between HIV and TB, as well as HIV and STIs. Currently, South Africa faces one of the worst dual epidemics of HIV and TB in the world, at 73 percent.
"I have suffered from TB three times and the failure to diagnose early is the problem," says Njoko. "It is a major killer among HIV-positive persons, even those on treatment.
"ARVs do not address opportunistic infections," Njoko adds. "It is critical that when one tests for HIV, they test for TB as well. That will ultimately prevent deaths."
Findings of the Mortality and Causes of Death in South Africa report for 2009, recently released by Statistics South Africa, showed that tuberculosis was the most commonly mentioned cause of death on certificates.
In 2009, tuberculosis continued to be the most commonly mentioned cause of death on death notification forms, as well as the leading underlying natural cause of death in the country.
Fighting the stigma
Although many strides have been made in combating the HIV/Aids epidemic, and many affected and infected families are open about the virus, stigmatisation is still a major problem, says Njoko.
"Stigma is rife ... To eliminate stigma, it is going to take our leaders to pioneer disclosure. It needs to start from the top, [then] it will be easier for ordinary people to disclose."
Being a musician has also helped Njoko spread the message. Music has helped her get people's attention, and it's through her music, as well as her job as social marketing and mobilisation deputy manager at the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, that she speaks about the effects of the virus.
"Through my job I am able to influence behaviour change and develop meaningful messages and also to improve greater involvement of people living with HIV."
'No death sentence
Njoko has been living with HIV for the last 17 years, and while many may take think that the virus is a death sentence, she urges those who are positive to live life to the fullest and look after their health.
"Every situation is unique ... It can never be the same. It lives in your body in different ways. You need to know your body and the virus better than anyone else.
"Don't live your life for the virus," says Njoko. "Don't let the virus direct or order the steps of your life. Whatever dreams you have - live them or create new dreams.
"Life excites me ... I love living," she says. "I cannot let anything reduce my life. I've learnt to flow with the wind and take each day as it comes."