I was born HIV positive. My parents spent their entire lives in an African country called Burkina Faso. In Africa, there are severe stigmas around STIs and HIV, so they’re something that’s never talked about. Unlike in America, and especially back in the 90s, healthcare practices in Africa were not safe. It was common for someone to go in for a vaccine where the facility would reuse unsanitary needles, or when getting blood transfusions they would not check whether someone had an illness or HIV before performing the transfusion.
I’m not 100% sure how my parents got it, as they are not certain either, but I have always been told it was due to unclean needles. When I was six months old, my family and I all moved from Africa to the United States because my dad was getting his Ph.D. at a university. At this time, my parents had no idea that they had contracted the virus or passed it along to me.
Around the age of 3, I got really sick with a lung infection that landed me in the hospital. That was when my parents and I were officially diagnosed with HIV. However, my older brother came out negative. Because of our diagnosis, we were able to seek asylum to stay in the States and eventually become U.S. citizens, which, in turn, gave us access to life-saving medication that we wouldn’t have had in Africa.
Growing up, I never felt any different; I took my medication as prescribed and have always maintained an undetectable viral load. The hardest thing about being positive was not the health aspect, but the stigma that comes with it.
To this day, no one in our family back in Africa knows about our status. I’ve been taught not to tell people because they might treat me differently. Now, as an adult, I am still reluctant to tell anyone my status, even people I’ve been friends with since elementary school.
I know that if I were more open with the people around me, I would not feel as if I was carrying this huge secret on my shoulders. I am trying to find the strength to tell people, but because of my status, it has made it hard for me even to pursue romantic relationships. I am terrified of rejection and of being misunderstood. In theory, I know that since I am undetectable, the chance of transmitting the disease is meager but, because of the stigma, I worry that people will not be willing to understand and accept me.
My life has been far from easy, and there have been a lot of things I had to work towards or overcome. I am currently in grad school, pursuing a degree to become a speech-language pathologist, and I am excited to see where that takes me.
When it comes to what I wish those living without HIV knew about living with it is that HIV is not a death sentence. If you take control of your health and take your medications, you can achieve an undetectable status and live a healthy normal life. You can be in relationships, get married, and have children. Public education needs to be brought up to speed to combat damaging stereotypes and assumptions. This way, people will be less afraid to talk about HIV and get tested.