| Overlapping epidemics ignored: Zulu

Winstone Zulu is one of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS activists. A native of Zambia, Zulu was diagnosed with HIV in 1990. After a period of denial about the existence of HIV, he became the first Zambian to publicly acknowledge his HIV-positive status. Zulu has lost four siblings to tuberculosis (TB), a disease that often co-infects those with HIV. He contracted TB in 1997, but was cured because of access to treatment. Throughout much of the 18 years that he has lived with HIV, Zulu has been dedicated to its widespread eradication and has campaigned worldwide for TB awareness; Zulu contends that the fight against HIV is also a fight against TB.

Zulu came to Montreal last week to speak at the 2008-09 Concordia University Community Lecture Series about the issues surrounding TB and HIV in South Africa. He sat down with The McGill Daily to discuss the stigma associated with HIV, the importance of taking action, and how every university student can become part of the fight against HIV/AIDS and TB.

The McGill Daily: You said “I want people to know that AIDS is real, that it kills, and that I’ve been through the heart of it and survived. Now my biggest energy goes into combatting stigma.” What actions need to be taken to combat the stigma?

Winstone Zulu: Stigma is reinforced by silence. The more silent people are, the more stigma there is. The strategy is that more people should talk about it and write about it, until people realize that it is just everyday people who get HIV. Back home, the stigma has decreased considerably. People can now get treatment for HIV at public hospitals.

MD: You were the first person to come out publicly about your HIV status in your country. What were your fears about speaking out, and what was the reaction?

WZ: The reasons for going into it overrode the fears. After losing my brothers, I just felt that it was ridiculous that no one was speaking about [HIV/AIDS]. At the time, if you had HIV you couldn’t travel to the U.S., and there were times that I was confronted with so much discrimination. But, generally, the vast majority of people were very supportive.

MD: Why are more people not talking about HIV/AIDS and going public about their status?

WZ: I am hoping that in the time I am here, I can try and show people that there is nothing to hide if you have HIV. [The prevailing idea] is that if you are HIV-positive, then you must have been very bad or very promiscuous. If people talk about it more, people will realize that [often] the only thing that people do wrong is fall in love with somebody. Back home, many people get infected after marriage, so there is nothing to feel ashamed about. That’s the problem with stigma – it drives the disease underground, and as a result you can’t fight it effectively. People with HIV should be able to be public about it and not fear anything.

MD: What are some of the factors involved in fighting this disease?

WZ: There are a lot of things and unfortunately you can’t start with [just] one thing. You need a program that includes prevention, treatment, care, education, and support. It is not easy to do, but not doing it doesn’t make it any better. I believe that HIV is not a problem that is insurmountable. There was time when the national average for HIV incidence in Zambia was 20 per cent, and now it’s 14 per cent. Uganda, the worse hit country, has moved from 25 per cent to 5 per cent prevalence.

MD: Since having HIV makes a person more susceptible to other diseases, how would you characterize the availability of drugs to combat the other related infections, not just HIV itself?

WZ: This is one of the problems. TB is curable, and treatment is affordable, yet there is still a funding gap for the resources that are really needed. In comparison to the amount of money being spent by major governments on other “priorities,” the amount needed to eradicate TB is small. An example of this discrepancy is Bush’s plan: “The Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief”, which provided US$15-billion to fight HIV. The proportion given to TB was only US$4-billion, even though TB is the biggest killer of HIV-infected persons.

MD: Is there any specific message you have for Canadian students?

WZ: Each person can be an agent of change. In Canada, there is an organization called RESULTS-Canada. If you get in touch with them they will give you a number for your local government representative and a specific day to call. In this way, thousands of students can contact a head government official in a synchronized manner. If members of parliament get thousands of calls from students telling them that the issue of TB or HIV is important to them, the government won’t ignore it…. There is always dialogue with the candidates during elections, but afterward the relationship is severed – but it shouldn’t be. The more people put pressure on the government about issues that really matter, the faster that positive change will happen.

– compiled by Mathura Thevarajah