There was hardly a dry eye at the World AIDS Day Commemoration this past Thursday when an HIV positive teenage girl took to the podium to give a speech.
Displaying absolutely no signs of the dreaded virus that has for decades claimed many a life here in Botswana, 17-year-old Tlotlo Lillian Moilwa’s spirit of confidence and courage belied her age.
Addressing President Ian Khama, Health and Wellness Minister Dorcus Makgato and other government ministers, MPs, the Mayor, diplomats and thousands of people at Gaborone Secondary School (GSS) Grounds and national television, Moilwa began her speech by shouting the 2016 World AIDS Day theme ‘Hands up for #HIVprevention’.
She recognised the millions of victims around the world who have lost their lives to the scourge, those who are living and soldering on with the virus, and the researchers who continue to search for the cure while also providing remedial solutions to reducing the effects of the virus.
“To all the young people like me who live with the virus, remember HIV is not a death sentence,” Moilwa said. “I know some of you are thinking ‘why should I work hard at school and pass when I know I am going to die’ and I want to say to you, stop harbouring those thoughts.”
She also spoke against those who say they won’t die alone and go on to spread the virus.
“Let us all ensure there are no more new infections.” And to those who are not infected, she reminded them that they are also affected. “I want to encourage all the children out there that are HIV positive not to despair because treatment is available.” Moilwa was born with the virus. Both her mother and her father passed on. Both died of AIDS, she said.
She got the virus through mother to child transmission. This was just a year (give or take) following the introduction of Prevention Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) to Botswana in 1999. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) mother to child transmission accounts for over 90 percent of new HIV infections among children.
By 2015, Botswana was among the six priority countries that met the World Health Organisation’s Global Plan target of reducing mother-to-child transmission by 90 percent. It was estimated that the effective scaling up of interventions would prevent over 250 000 new infections annually, says AVERT (global HIV and AIDS information provider).
In September 2015, WHO released new guidelines recommending life-long anti-retroviral treatment for all pregnant and breastfeeding women living with HIV.
The 2015 guidelines recommend that life-long anti-retroviral treatment is provided to all pregnant and breastfeeding women living with HIV regardless of CD4 count. Treatment is to be maintained after delivery and completion of breastfeeding for life.
“Targets relating to PMTCT include reducing the number of new global HIV infections among children to fewer than 40 000 by 2018 and fewer than 20 000 by 2020. There is also a commitment to ensure that 95 percent of pregnant women living with HIV are receiving life-long HIV treatment by 2018,” says AVERT.
While she tries to be strong Moilwa has said in a testimony earlier this year that “like any other living soul, I have ups and downs in life just like any other HIV infected person would, it haunts me, I would sometimes ask myself questions such as why me? But no, I don’t blame my mom or dad! I don’t know how they got the virus as well, so why would I point fingers?” she asks.
“Growing up knowing that I am HIV positive was not easy as whenever a teacher stood up in front of me to talk about STIs I would feel uncomfortable, get embarrassed, shed tears as I would be having that feeling that everyone could see that I am positive,” she said, adding “but look at me now, I did very well at school, passed Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) with a first class, and a second class for my Junior Certificate (JC).
Moilwa recently sat for her BGSE Examinations at Moshupa Senior Secondary School. She is part of only a handful of HIV positive Batswana who have made public their status since David Ngele more than two decades ago.