Mr. and Mrs. ARV Fight for Zero Discrimination
March 1 was Zero Discrimination Day, which the United Nations introduced in 2014 as an opportunity for people to "share their stories and photos as a way to end discrimination and work towards positive transformation.” Today, we bring you the story of an extraordinary couple changing their community in rural Zimbabwe.
Health professionals around the world know how to treat and prevent transmission of HIV, yet stigma remains a barrier to an HIV-free future. Stigma is a symptom of fear and a misperception of personal risk—and it can devastate communities by making people living with HIV, feel too ashamed to seek treatment, creating further opportunity for the disease to be transmitted to others.
But some heroic individuals are breaking the silence about HIV and AIDS and are leading their communities to a reality of zero discrimination. One such couple is the Makontos in rural Zimbabwe.
“When I learned that I was HIV-positive, people were discriminating against me,” says Mildred Makontos, a 42-year-old mother of three in rural Zimbabwe. “People were not receiving me very well.”
Patrick and Mildred Makontos have been married for 25 years and live in Shurugwi, a rural village in the center of Zimbabwe. Both are living with HIV and are active HIV/AIDS advocates.
Patrick, now 49, tested positive for HIV in 2003 and was immediately initiated onto antiretroviral (ARV) medication. He had to pay for his ARVs himself at that time, and in Patrick’s words, “They were damn expensive.”
Patrick received very little support from his workplace and his community. “They told me: resign and go home and wait for your grave,” Patrick says.
Mildred was tested for HIV in 2004 and learned that she was also positive. At first she was very resistant to accepting her status. “I was so scared. I can’t explain how I felt,” Mildred says. “My daughter counseled me, and she encouraged me to accept my status.”
Instead of succumbing to fear and stigma, the Makontos decided to become advocates of health and to show their neighbors that HIV is neither a death sentence nor an end to family life.
“We discuss our problems freely,” says Patrick, who teaches agriculture at Gare High School. “Even at the workplace, we are very comfortable discussing our problems together. Some people are dying because they cannot disclose. We must continue to educate others—because there are others who are continuing to stigmatize.”
”After some time, the community eventually accepted our status,” Patrick continues. ”We started talking to other community members, and we started support groups.”
After several years on treatment, the Makontos decided to have another child. They already had three other children, 24, 22, and 17—all HIV-negative. Through the information they received at their local clinic about prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT), the Makontos knew it was possible for HIV-positive parents to give birth to an HIV-negative child.
“When our CD4 counts were above 500 [which reduced the chance of HIV transmission], we started planning for the baby,” says Mildred. “When I realized I was pregnant, I went with my husband to the local clinic. He has always supported me. We were supporting each other, and we knew that if we take our drugs we will produce an HIV-negative baby.”
After delivery, Mildred was shown how to breastfeed in the context of HIV. When she was two years old the Makontos’ baby, Nokutenda, tested negative for HIV.
“I was so happy,” says Mildred. The [neighbors] came to visit so I showed them the result. The community learned that an HIV-positive mother can give birth to an HIV-negative baby. So the communities are learning from us.”
Over the years the Makontos have become leaders in their community and have greatly expanded the number of HIV/AIDS support groups in their area.
“We are supporting each other,” Says Mildred. “Some are doing agriculture; some are doing sewing. When we sell our wares, we save money to support orphans [who have lost parents to HIV]. The money that we get, we support ourselves and we support these orphans, even to go to school.”
“You can actually see the number of births of children being born negative. It means that people have actually received the message,” says Patrick.
Patrick recently competed in a beauty contest for HIV-positive men and was crowned Mr. ARV Zimbabwe.
Because of HIV education (thanks to the Makontos and others) and prevention efforts, the mother-to-child HIV transmission rates in Zimbabwe have plummeted. Zimbabwe is on track to virtually eliminate new cases of HIV infection in children this year.