'I Refuse To Let HIV Beat Me'

marie claire

Few people who saw it can ever forget the infamous Grim ReaperTV advertisement, which ran for three weeks in 1987 and was designed to shock people into practising safe sex. For a while it worked, yet since 1999, rates of HIV and AIDS in Australia have steadily climbed back to peak 1987 levels; and today, around the world, 262 people contract the virus every hour.

From July 20–25, scientists and activists will converge on Melbourne to try to answer one question: how can the epidemic be stopped?

To mark AIDS 2014, we spoke to four women about what it's like to live with the virus. Visit www.aids2014.org for more information.

Sarah Feagan, 27, Australia
"The thing I find most difficult about being HIV-positive is that it's difficult to meet men who are OK with it. Most men run like the wind when they find out.

"I'd just celebrated my 21st birthday when I discovered I had HIV. I'd been dating my boyfriend for a while and it turned out he'd acquired HIV in a previous relationship without realising.

"After the diagnosis - and despite unwavering support from my family and friends - I just wanted to give up. For years, I refused to take the antiretroviral drugs that could keep me alive. I got sicker and sicker, and eventually decided to check myself into palliative care so I could die. When I broke the news to my parents, my mother collapsed. That was my wake-up call; I realised I had to try to live for them, if not for myself.

"Now, I'm 27 and I've been on medication for a year. Everything's changed. I'm much healthier and I feel like I have a lot to live for - not just my parents."

Ayu Oktariani, 27, Indonesia
"At the end of 2008, my husband got very sick and none of the doctors we saw could tell us what was wrong. It wasn't until the following year, when he collapsed, that the hospital finally tested him for HIV. "When the results came back positive,
I was shocked and confused. From the moment Abet and I had met, friends had warned me that he did drugs. He didn't know it, but he'd acquired HIV through injecting.

"He passed away in 2009 and I found myself 22 and alone, with no financial support,a pile of medical bills and, worst of all, the realisation that I had transmitted the virus to my two-year-old daughter. My family was supportive, but a few of my friends distanced themselves after I told them of my diagnosis.

"I've just married a man who accepts me for who I am. My daughter is now seven and taking antiretroviral medications. Until now, we've kept her status private, but my next challenge will be to share it with her school and the community. I'll help them understand that she's no different to any other little girl - except for the virus that lives inside her."

Alejandra Trossero, 50, Panama
"I'd only been dating my boyfriend for a few months when he went to donate blood and was told he could be HIV-positive. At the time I was 25 and at university in Argentina. It was the '80s and the military dictatorship had just ended. Everyone my age was experimenting - with ideas, sex and drugs.

"Back then, I thought AIDS was just an illness that affected gay men. After my boyfriend discovered he had HIV, I was tested myself - and I remember being horrified when the doctors wore hazard suits just to administer the test. In the end, though, the results were inconclusive. It was another seven years before I was brave enough to get tested again, and by then several friends had died from AIDS. This time, the results confirmed what I already knew deep down: I had HIV.

"I've now lived with HIV for half of my life. Until recently, though, I hadn't told my mother about my status. Now she knows, and it's such a relief to be able to share it with her and have her support. Today, life continues - I am a yoga teacher and policy adviser for the UN."

L'orangelis Thomas Negron, 26, Puerto Rico
I was eight when I started to get curious about the pills I took every day. So one day I found a Spanish-to-English dictionary and looked up the words written on the pill bottle. That's when I discovered the truth: I had HIV. At the time I wasn't fazed - after all, my mum had HIV, too.

"It wasn't until a few years later, when my mum died, that the seriousness of my situation sunk in. I was 11 and for the first time, I understood why some relatives washed our plates with bleach after we visited for Sunday lunch.

"After Mum died I went to live with my father. I stopped taking the pills and for a while I was OK. But at 20, it all came crashing down. I was having sex without condoms and I got chlamydia. The clinic I went to tested for HIV as well, and that's when I was forced to accept that I was living with HIV. For a time I was suicidal, but I joined a support group for women living with HIV and I became a different person.

"Today, I'm an HIV counsellor. I like to think I offer hope to people who are struggling with their diagnosis as I once did."