My wonder woman

Being open on social media and helping different individuals can be quite a challenge sometimes. Recently I was approached by a man for information about HIV diagnosis. He claimed to know his HIV status and apparently he was exposed during sex without condom. As he knew his status (negative), he ended up forcing this woman to go for a HIV test after they already had unprotected sex.

Why? He said that he suddenly became suspicious of her. When their test result came in, it confirmed that she was HIV positive while his result was negative. This made him very angry and in our conversation, he bluntly put the blame on her for allowing him to have sex without a condom. So I asked him, “isn’t this a joint decision to do that? Why should she be blamed?”

Since I don’t know her as he does not want to put her in touch with me, I decided to write a letter to her as there are many women and girls who go through this in many places. So, here is my letter to you, my Wonder woman!

My Wonder woman

How are you?

We don’t know each other but I know your story through your boyfriend. By the way, he is a coward! First I wanted to let you know that you are not alone going through this. Learning that you are HIV positive is a scary thing, especially when you are caught by surprise. You were not aware yet that you were joined by this tiny virus called HIV. I call it “tiny” because you can beat it.

I know it breaks your heart to trust someone and you end up being blamed and dumped because of this tiny virus. But let that man and this HIV virus be the losers!

I heard that he forced you to go with him for a test and that is how you learned about your status. I am sorry you have to go through this. Your boyfriend says that he already knew his status because he does regular checks up. Then why is he so angry at you? It was his choice not to protect himself without knowing your status. Why didn’t he use a condom or PrEP? And still he wants to blame you for being Positive while he got to stay negative? What is he complaining about? He is a such idiot!

My wonder woman, I can feel your pain. You may have no one to share your secret, you may feel  darkness, scared and alone. If you happen to read my message, please come and talk to me. Don’t stay alone, because there are a lot of sisters who went through a lot and came out stronger than ever.

Wonder woman, get on medication as soon as possible. When you are on medication you will become undetectable, you cannot transmit your HIV through sex. You can continue to plan for your future. If you want you can become a mother. Your HIV is not here to stop you from chasing your dreams. Live healthy, give yourself a compliment everyday. Every little achievement in your life deserves a celebration. Continue to go out with your friends, don’t be afraid of sharing beers, laughs or hugs, HIV will not jump on them.

If you want to share your secret with someone, choose wisely with whom to share. Start with a person you trust most and see how it goes. If that person is your real friend, he or she will keep it safe and will help you in case of an emergency. And may also help you to become open about your status one day.

One more thing. Smile often, it helps to brighten your heart and spirit. I like to smile too, that is why I recommend it to you. Stigma around HIV and AIDS is still the biggest issue in our World but, once you embrace your HIV status and have a strong mind, you will fight together with others sisters and brothers in our HIV community.

Wonder Woman, don’t let HIV stand in your way! Continue to live positively, like many of us are already doing for ages . WE are strong and Powerful. I am sending my love and positive vibes to you, wherever you are in this World.

Peace,

Eliane 

How to build confidence in a day

My lovely people, February is called by many Valentine’s month. It is considered a romantic month, and for me it is also called birthday month as it is my lovely husband’s birthday on Valentine’s day. This month we chose to celebrate his 51st birthday in Rome.

Why Rome? I grew up with in a strong catholic family with religious parents. In my youth I was a priest helper, I was part of a church dance group and I grew up with catholic values. I always believed Rome was the Holy City; As a child I did not know that the Vatican was actually a state in Rome where the Pope resided, I thought He lived in Rome and his church was called Vatican.

In 1990 Pope John Paul II visited my country Burundi. I kept very sweet memories of that and since I always fantasized of being in the Vatican one day, to see where the Pope lived. Later on, during high school we also learned so much about history and the important influence of the Roman empire and Christianity as one of the world religions with its seat in the Vatican.

But when I was told in 2003 that I was going to die because of my HIV, I thought that I would never be able to visit the Saint Peter Square in the Vatican or see the place where gladiators, like in the movie, would never give up until their last breath. So having overcome the hurdle of access to HIV medication, my WILL to visit Rome on day only increased. I really wanted to fulfill that childhood dream.

So when my husband asked me which city in Europe I wanted to visit, there was no doubt that this should be Rome. So finally, after these horrible covid times I said “darling, let’s go to Rome to celebrate your birthday. Carpe Diem!” He asked why Rome? I explained that I had been dreaming of this since I was a kid, to see where Pope lives and set my foot in the Vatican, and to tell HIV that my dreams can still come through!

The mighty Colosseum

And it did come true! We visited Rome from 10 to 15 February. First we visited the colosseum, an incredible structure, considering it is almost 2,000 years old! Only when you are there, you are able to realise what immense power these Roman emperors literally held. It is not difficult to also feel the pain and injustice done to the slaves that built it. The whole area around the Colosseum, on the Palatine hill and around the Forum, you start realising how sophisticated and hard working the common people and slaves were. Rome was certainly not built in one day, and surely not by the Romans themselves!

The Pope’s favourite chair

Then it was time for the massive and beautiful Saint Peter Basilica, the domain of the Pope. It is so impressive. We were lucky to visit the Vatican gardens with their three styles; the English, Italian and French gardens. After 12.00, once the tourists have left, this is where you will see the Pope meditate. The most touching story involved ‘my’ Pope John Paul II again, who I really kept in my memory since his visit to Burundi. We passed by a garden where he used to come daily to pray next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Although there were many different chairs in that garden, he was not conformtable on any of them. So the gardener made a very simple seat out of a wooden log for him. And fromt that moment, when he sat in it, he felt the connection. He felt ‘grounded’, rooted to the earth and ever since it became his special seat. I was so happy to sit on that chair. It made me feel so unique!

Rome is beautiful and vibrant! It takes some time to really appreciate the city, but once you do, you see so many beautiful things. It is when you notice that each bridge over the Tiber river is special in its own way. For example, you will notice the Jazz bands playing on the Ponte Sisto on Sunday afternoons and see people taking time to enjoy life. And see me joining them, dancing, to become part of that amazing spontaneous atmosphere, ‘whipping’ others to make the whole bridge one giant open air Jazz festival!

Yes, I have seen with my own eyes that Rome was not built in one day… My acceptance of living with HIV also took what seemed millions of days to come to a point where I was able to enjoy the confidence I re-built myself. But in the end, my HIV did not become my limitation to give up on my dream to visit Rome. 

So, despite Rome not having been built in one day, NEVER forget that it only takes one day, one short moment, to enjoy life to the fullest.

Life is really too short to waste it!

Peace,

Eliane

FIVE ways to THRIVE

This month I had the opportunity to participate in the ‘Stories from HIV Long-Term Thrivers’ forum where I gave a spoken word performance alongside an amazing and inspiring panel. The forum was organized by ViiV healthcare.

How did I give this spoken word performance? I decided to share my 5 ways to thrive! Even today, to many people HIV is still seen as a disease to be ashamed of, they consider it as a big challenge while actually you can live a perfectly happy and healthy life. Here are my 5 ways to thrive for those who missed my performance:

Trust (again)

In 2003, when a doctor told me to buy my coffin when I was diagnosed with HIV and sent me away desperate, without a prescription, I spent  a few hours thinking only about my death. I lost all confidence to live. Instead of looking for help, I started preparing my funeral. Hope started glowing when my husband brought me to another hospital for sound advice and to get my HIV treatment started. When I held my first pills in my hand, I rejoiced in taking them because I firmly believed they were going to save my life. Only after regaining trust in myself, I was able to work on my next step…

Move (my body)

My new reality made me even more aware of the importance to keep myself in shape and healthy. But what what get me going? In 2003, I wore a beautiful sky blue wedding dress and I set myself as a goal to wear it again at my 20th wedding anniversary next year. So, I decided to walk at least 10 km every day to keep me in shape and make sure for me wedding dress to fit me again. Another really important driver was for me to reduce the number of pills I am taking as I also need to take care of my diabetes. So as a huge added benefit of my daily walks I was also able to reduce 4 pills. And my weight? Well, I lost 8 kg so far, just a tiny bit to go. I like my healthy new me!

Share (my emotions)

You all know by now that I came out of the closet with a big bang! As a campaign poster girl, with my message posted all over Amsterdam. After staying with my secret for more than 10 years, sharing my story with the world was a huge relief for me and made me even stronger and more courageous. It was also a great motivator to help more people in the HIV community, for example by peer counselling and support people living with HIV on emotional well being. It also motivated me to learn ever more about HIV, related stigma and existing inequalities in the world. Last but not least, I also launched an initiative called Stories of Hope to show the diversity and talents of the HIV community worldwide.

Perform (my arts)

My greatest passion has always been to be on the stage. Since very early on in my life, I liked entertaining people. And I do so in many different ways, as a poet, through traditional Burundian dance or playing my indonongo… While I am lucky to consider my passion as my job, my key message to all of you is to work out routines, find hobbies or simply try to enjoy your job and all other great things in life. Creating and maintaining a diverse lifestyle is probably really my biggest secret to staying healthy. So, despite having gone through so much in my life, I am confidently looking forward to growing old.

Dream (my desires)

Unfortunately, in Africa people living with HIV/ AIDS are still dying. My nephew Kevin lost both his parents because of AIDS within 8 days in the year 2015. During the forum I shared my wish for a world where children like Kevin will not lose their parents anymore, where they can access health services so they can get tested and treated, and where they can grow old in good health. And right now, for Kevin I wish he can be supported to grow up in a community where he will not be stigmatised.

Yes it is possible to thrive whilst living with HIV. I, and many others in the HIV community, am an example of that. I am always proud to share my little secrets to growing old while enjoying my life with HIV! 

A bouquet of problems

My birthday month, November, had a great start by doing what I like most, giving my HIV activism a boost. Between 4-7 November I was in Istanbul for a face-to-face ‘Skills Training to Empower Patients’ (STEP-UP) and networking weekend organized by the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) Training Academy.

After more than a year of online training because of Covid 19, I got a chance to finally meet my fellow European and Asian HIV activists and advocates. Everyone was dying to meet and finally get to know each other more and share our experiences because in the end it is really about community voices. It was quite interesting to experience the difference between zoom meetings and ‘real’ talks together.

As we all came from different parts of Europe and Central Asia we had to speak different languages, so some were speaking English and others Russian. But in the end we all share the same goal and then language barriers can be overcome. While chatting with different people and listening to presentations, I realized that we all share what I call a “Bouquet of problems”;  Stigma, discrimination and criminalization.

During the weekend I learnt so many new insights. For example, my friends from Greece and Georgia shared with us that among people using drugs, women are way more stigmatised than men. Or that in some countries mothers living with HIV are still criminalised when breastfeeding and that they are not receiving any support from the health system to obtain baby formula or do medical checks during their breastfeeding period. 

Yet, all the new information led me to ask so many questions. For example, why are especially women still so vulnerable to attack and deliberate stigmatision? There are so many new developments and guidelines, for example on breastfeeding, there is U=U, etc. In 2021, women living with hiv should not be criminalised at all. I am telling you, no mother would wish to transmit HIV to her child on purpose!  

It shocked me to hear that there are still 130 (!) countries where people living with HIV are injustly criminalised, and in 50 countries we can be prosecuted because they have outdated laws related to sexual, but also on spitting, biting and even breastfeeding. People, after 40 years of HIV/AIDS, instead of being stigmatised we must focus our fight on removing inequalities and to demand the right to access HIV treatment and receive good medical care.

Our training was epic, there was no taboo, we talked about many topics and received useful tools that we can use in our communities. It feels like I have known this group for such a long time as we shared so many laughs, jokes and fun. It made me wonder what more we could have achieved if we could have done all sessions face-to-face instead of via zoom. I gained so many friends, which is fantastic. These moments of togetherness bring back humanity to our lives.

By Sunday, we all went back home empowered with knowledge that we will share with our community and use to convince our decision-makers and politicians to DECRIMINALISE people living with HIV!

Thank you EATG for organising the STEP-UP training and making this such an inspiring weekend, we shall meet again my Activist Friends. Keep up the fight, we are on the winning side since we DARE to speak up about our bouquet of problems!

Peace,

Eliane 

My sleepy dragon

This month Akira, my youngest son of 13 years old, and I travelled to Antwerp for a filmshoot for the ‘Undetectable equals Untransmittable’ (U=U) campaign in Belgium. Whilst in the train towards Antwerp I asked how he felt to be part of this campaign, since this was not his first time participating in campaigns related to HIV and AIDS. He was also part of the ‘coming out of the closet’ (HIV uit de kast) campaign, the short movie ‘people from the HIV association‘, the Amsterdam 2018 AIDS Conference welcoming campaign, and now U=U. Akira’s answer was; “Mom, I am proud to help out. I believe what we do is pretty cool! I hope we are bringing the message across to people so the new generation won’t suffer a lot of HIV stigma anymore”. 

At that moment, I got a flashback of when I told him about my HIV status when he was 7 years old. I wanted to take this opportunity to proudly share this with you. Back then, Akira asked me “Mama, you have a lot of medicines. Are all of them for diabetes?’’ I said ‘’No, they are for something else’’. Immediately I felt that he was ready for me to share the truth.

He asked ”What do you mean for something else?” I was prepared! I knew he liked to watch TV cartoons with dragons, so I chose to use the dragon as a synonym for HIV. I said ‘’Akira, mama has a virus. This one, it is like a dragon in my blood. He has been with me for many many years”. Akira asked ‘’Mama, does the dragon breathe fire?”. “No, because I take medication everyday. The dragon is very weak now, the medication is putting out the fire. The dragon is asleep in a corner of my blood and he can no longer play to move and dance around in my blood’’.

Then Akira asked “How can someone get a dragon?’’ I answered “Through contact with blood of someone who also has a dragon and who is not taking medication. People have the dragon in their blood, but they do not know it because they did not yet test their blood for the dragon’’. He asked again, now really excited, ”Wow mama, do I also have a dragon in my blood?’’ I said, ‘’Good question! But you don’t have a dragon, because when you were in my tummy I already took the medication every day to keep the dragon asleep, so that he could not touch you. You were born without the dragon! And now I am telling the world that my sleepy dragon does not harm me or anyone close to me! You can hug me, the dragon cannot touch you. He is sound asleep”.

He asked again “So I don’t have a dragon?” I affirmed. “But how do you feel inside? Does it hurt?” I replied that it does not hurt, but that i have to keep controlling the dragon with medication and sometimes medication can make me sick for a few days, but that afterwards I am fine again. He responded telling me “When you feel sick again, let me know, I will make you a cup of tea!’’ Then he gave me a hug and said ”I love you mom, you are my super mama!” 

After this conversation I felt relieved to see how well and easy he took this information. I guess that when you inform people with a positive mind, they will take it in a positive way and that there will be less chance of rejection. And if indeed you are being rejected, it is because they do not (yet) have an idea what you are talking about. Then, just try again and focus on a positive way to explain once more until people understand your message. This is how you will contribute to ending HIV stigma.

Raising the next generation of stigma fighters

Informing and empowering the next generation is our pathway to ending HIV stigma. If they are willing to speak up without fear, then the World will change. It is this generation that I hope will grow up to see their mothers, fathers, and any other person living with HIV to live without fear of being stigmatised.  I am proud to be raising future ambassadors and stigma fighters, together we can change the World and the change starts with us.

So far I did not regret to disclose my HIV status to my son. I am actually enjoying doing activism with him. Dear parents living with HIV, I know that when it comes to stigma around HIV and AIDS, you do everything it takes to protect your children. I have done so for many years, yet at some stage I also realised that I had to go beyond that and that I also needed to retain their trust and share my HIV story. The day I shared my story helped me also to gain more confidence and freedom to share my HIV story with the rest of World. No more secrets! I am blessed to have them in my life and sharing the truth about my life with HIV was the best present I could give them in preparation for their future healthy life choices. 

I am a proud HIV MOM 

Peace ,

Eliane 

Talented migrant

My lovely people, can you explain to me why white people coming to Africa are quickly called “experts”, but people of African descent in Europe are often called “refugees, migrants, or illegals”?

After I married my husband, in the different countries in Africa we lived in I became the “expert’s wife”, Mrs. Becks. Although I always felt this title to be wrong, at the same time at all these places I was also recognised for my talents as an artist and appreciated as a human being, part of society.

The talented Mrs. Becks in South Africa

The ugly divide that the color of a skin can cause became evident to me in South Africa… I was 29 by then and I just bought my first house in Pretoria. Still, whenever a white South African appeared at our gate, for example for a delivery, I was always seen as the cleaning lady working for the landlord. Why? Because black women were supposed to be doing cleaning jobs in the suburb where we lived. They simply could not believe that I owned that house. So many times they refused to hand over my package, arguing they were only allowed to hand it over to the home owner! You should have seen their shock once Mrs. Becks showed her ID to them.

So, when we moved to the Netherlands, my husband kept his expert title, and me? From the cleaning lady I became the migrant, refugee or illegal. I was shocked to be labelled so strongly by so many in my adopted home. Mind you, I am proud to be called an African migrant, and I am really not bothered when people think I am a refugee as it is not a crime being a refugee.

But I am amazed by the prejudice that is part of these simple words. Despite me being Dutch and contribute to our economy through my business for more than 10 years now, you will be surprised at how quickly people are able to make up their mind about you, only based on the color of your skin!

But I am not harsh to them, a mistake can be made, right? But what bothers me is that still many people, instead of facing the truth, start a rant about that they are allowed to say what they think as they have ‘freedom of speech’. And to make matters worse, start pointing out the fact that I am not originally from this country and that I should know my place. Really?

An extreme story to illustrate this is one time when a dog was barking furiously at me. And the owner of that dog was getting very angry at me and told me in my face that I made her dog behave aggressively because I was black! I was speechless, but luckily my husband was with me and told the woman: “Does the dog see people in color? Only people see each other in different colors, for a dog every person is alike”.

Back to the expert/migrant issue; In fact we are both migrants as 1) my husband is not originally from Amersfoort and 2) his great grandfather settled in the Netherlands from Germany. So if you dig deep enough, you may discover that your roots are also somewhere else. And on being an expert, my talent is to be living for more than 18 years with HIV now, and I am also the first female in the World to play my Indonongo. So even if people try to label me, I know who I am and I am very proud of myself!

People may judge me based on the color of my skin or my African surname, but my actions always speak for themselves! So let’s all agree to love each other for the way we are and focus on using our talents to make this beautiful country an even better place. I thank all Dutch people who are giving their everything to make this happen, especially my lovely husband whom I love dearly.

Peace,

Eliane

U=U life coach

My dear lovely people living with HIV, I am not sure if we all know what U=U means. If not, I am always glad to explain it once again as it is really important to know U=U and how it can help to break the HIV stigma.

If you have an undetectable viral load, it means that you cannot transmit HIV sexually. I believe this information should be known widely as I have come to realize that there are still people out there that lack this information. So, to highlight the impact of U=U I will share two stories of young couples where U=U saved their relationship.

My first story happened in October last year, when I got in touch with a HIV+ American woman with undetectable viral load who follows my HIV stigmafighter facebook page. She fell in love with an African migrant from Senegal and I just finished to share a post about the U=U campaign in French. Immediately she contacted me via messenger and asked me if I could talk to her boyfriend about U=U.

“I can give you truth, information and respect, but I cannot transmit HIV “

I explained U=U to him through this picture in French. He told me that they already had intercourse and that some time after that she told him about her HIV status. At the time he panicked, thinking it would be the end of the world, especially since he recently was tested HIV negative before donating blood. I was quick to comfort him and inform that she could not pass it on to him because she is Undetectable. I recommended him to go back for another test to discover the truth.

A few days later he got in touch with me again and he was very happy and thanked me for guiding him in the whole process. He send me a small message saying “Hello Madam , I want to thank you for your help. I did HIV test and I am negative. I believe now in U=U”. He confirmed that he will keep on loving her and is planning to start a family with her. I now heard from them and learned that soon they are going to get married! What a happy ending!

My second story is about a young African migrant woman living in the Netherlands. I used to be her HIV peer counsellor and during one of our sessions she explained her worries about having children. She was madly in love but she did not want to disclose her status. First of all, I checked if she already knew something about U=U and she told me that she heard about it but did not understand it since she always communicated with health professionals through an interpreter who does not have knowledge on HIV terminologies. So, I explained clearly to her in French what U=U means since this is her preferred language to communicate. I told her that if she really wants to have a baby with her boyfriend, she will have to tell him to make him understand what it means to be undetectable. 

I also stressed to her to use the fact of being undetectable for her own benefit, and that she should ask him to find out about his status as well before sexual intercourse. The reason for this is because if it then so happens that he is HIV+, they will not later on argue about his status. Being open about status and being undetectable will really help him understand that there will not be any danger for him.

After our chat, she went home convinced to be open about it. On the same evening when he approached her romantically she decided to tell him. He accepted her advice and they went to see a doctor together where he also learned more about how he can support her. He also got in touch with me to hear more  about my and other experiences, which made him really excited to start a family with his girlfriend. Two months later she became pregnant and now they have a son that was born HIV negative.

Long live U=U, it saves relationship and helps to break the stigma!

Peace, Eliane

Photo impression – Stop HIV stigma Show

Last Saturday 5 December I organised the “Stop HIV stigma Show” in my hometown, Gihanga, Burundi. I believe that by organising these type of events that one day my dream will come true: To defeat HIV stigma in our community! Here you find an impression of this beautiful day.

Pictures of this day are made courtesy of Ingabire Media and Chouman. Enjoy! Peace, Eliane

Here are a few pictures of the fashion show organised by the lovely people of the Fit Fashion Fire Team:

There was a lot of entertainment as well. Multi-talent Bryere in a traditional outfit playing the igondera, gifted Devie with a beautiful HIV stigmafighter button, the brilliant girls of Amazing Team, a group of awesome visuallly impaired singers from Lycee Kanura Band, a young performer from Fit Fashion Fire Team, and our two enthousiastic MCs Emi-Bravo and Chadou:

 

Then there was lots of important speakers during the event. The co-organiser Irene Kundubumwe, the representative of the network for people living with HIV in Bubanza Province Madame Kanyana Daphrose, national association of young people living with HIV Nshimirimana Salvator and Chantal Mbonankira

And to finish this beautiful photo impression, here you see my Batwa friends posing in front of the banner for the show. These were my real guests of honour and had a well deserved frontrow seat during this amazing day in Gihanga. Mwarakoze!

Stigma at times of COVID-19

Before we even heard of COVID-19, people living with HIV or AIDS were already facing stigma and discrimination as I experienced and shared with you regularly with healthcare providers throughout the years. Many more people started facing stigma when COVID-19 came along in many ways, and this made things for people living with HIV or AIDS even worse.

I would like to share my experience during this period and how I overcame the stigma and help the healthcare provider to open up her eyes and take into account what her actions can mean for others. In January I needed to do a CT scan and they happened to find a something on one of my lungs. For my entire life I never had to see a pulmonologist (lung doctor) before, so on 12 February I met one for the first time.

I was nervous and curious the same time. I am used to visit hospitals for many checks up and doctors always welcomed me through a hand shake. It was at a time when in the Netherlands there were no rules yet on how to behave in these different times. So we all still went about our business as usual and every doctor I met was still shaking hands. So I had quite a big expectation of warm greetings from this doctor since it was our first meeting.

When I gave my hand, she rejected me by saying “Oh no no, I don’t shake your hands, there are many viruses around. I don’t dare to be infected!“ I immediately felt confused and started thinking and asking myself what she meant by many viruses? I don’t have Corona, I don’t have flu, the only virus I have is my HIV. Since she read my medical file she knew what kind of virus I have. So this made me start doubting her words. Why would she talk to me as if I am very dangerous to her? Did she mean that my virus would jump to her by shaking hands? I really needed to find the reason behind her behaviour.

A week later some hospitals started introducing information on not shaking hands. But there was still not yet a strong medical protocol in place. So I went back to see my HIV Doctor, and this was also a new person as my previous doctor had left recently. So on 28 February I met her for the first time, and I was not expecting to shake hands. But, when she introduced herself, she said “Hello, I am not suppose to shake hands but since this is our first meeting I make an exception and I feel comfortable about it”. This is when I explained my experience with the lung doctor and how hurt I felt. So, she advised me to better talk to her again.

Afterwards, this whole episode with the lung doctor kept on playing in my mind; how she did not show empathy during our conversation, and how she also failed to really answer any questions on the diagnosis. I went completely crazy, and I decide to see my GP first to explain the results of the scan better to me. My GP explained very clearly and then I shared with her how I felt about the lung doctor, and she also advised me to go back and talk.

I waited until May, and I finally got an appointment this week. I was very calm, and not angry but curious. I told her that the main reason I came back was to talk to her how I felt last time we met. I asked her what she meant by saying “Many viruses”. I explained that by the time we met I did have only one virus, HIV. That sometimes I get discriminated in hospital because of that. She was completely in shock and said “I am sorry I meant to say flu, corona virus, not HIV”. then I said “Well, you should have been specific, because telling somebody with the HIV virus that you don’t shake hands because of many viruses, from experience I immediately understood that you meant HIV virus since I did not have corona, or flu”. She said 5 times sorry, “I am sorry I was not aware that people can get it wrong when I say virus. But you are right, I should have said flu or corona”.

I explained that we often face stigma as some people still believe they can get HIV virus by shaking hands, that what she said really bothered me. But that I did not want to accept this, and I needed to find out what she meant. She thanked me and said “You are a strong woman to come back and talk about this with me, you taught me a lot and I am going to use it with the next patients”. I told her that I did not do it for myself, I want to prevent this from happening to other patients like me. Not everyone will dare to challenge a doctor on this, especially my Africans migrants. And they will go home and feel bad, confused and get depressed by this. But I choose to clear my path before I move on. I need us to be clear and make sure we understand each other.

An important lesson learnt for her is that language matters. I am sure next time she will take into account which words to use when communicating with patients like me so then they don’t feel offended!

Peace, Eliane

HIV medication exchange

I would like to share an article (in Dutch) published on 9 Jaunary in the magazine Hello Gorgeous. It is about a topic that I am really passionate about: Ensuring that unused HIV medication, still in its original packaging and meant to be destroyed here in the Netherlands, reaches people with HIV in places where there is still no access to life-saving medication. In the text below you will find the translated text in English:

Ready to be sent to people without HIV medication in Romania

Hello Gorgeous: “How did you get this idea to collect HIV medication for Romania?” Eliane: “Last year I met a Romanian woman during a meeting of the European AIDS Treatment Group in Brussels. She was looking for people who wanted to donate their HIV medication to pregnant women with HIV. We became friends on Facebook and kept in touch. When she told me that these women are regularly without HIV medication, I was heart-broken. Without HIV medication they risk their children being born with HIV. I don’t understand this is still possible in Europe. “

Hello Gorgeous: “What are you doing to tackle this?” Eliane: “I am continuously asking people in my network, via messages and emails, if they have any medication left. Often, this happens when people switch medication, then they are left with unused medication. I collect this, compare it with a list I get from my contact in Romania, and then I send the required medication to Romania. It hurts me, to see we are so committed to climate action, for example by recycling, but that we are still throwing away perfect medication which can save lives elsewhere. This only happens because our rules are such that medication prescribed for one person cannot be transferred to someone else.”

Hello Gorgeous: “Have you also approached pharmacies to help you?”. Eliane: “Certainly, I talked to a number of pharmacists here in Amersfoort. They told me that they used to collect medication in the past but that this ended when health authorities required them to stop this. I always tell them to give it to me secretly. It is so difficult to accept that unused medication is destroyed while we can find a purpose for it. Meanwhile, we still worry about someone dying every 40 seconds of the effects of AIDS due to a lack of access to medication.”

Hello Gorgeous: “What can people do if they want to send you their unused HIV medication?” Eliane: “If people switch their HIV medication and still have unused supplies at home, they can contact me. Send me a message via hivstigmafighter@gmail.com and you will hear from me.”

This message gives me courage to continue HIV medication exchange

Hello Gorgeous, thank you so much for publishing this article. Already I have been approached by people, asking me how to send their left-over medication to me. Many people living with HIV in Romania will forever be grateful to you.

I really hope to expand this project in 2020, so more people with HIV in Romania or elsewhere in this world can continue using life-saving HIV medication even.

Peace, Eliane