In Zambia, Felix Mwanza is a well-known HIV and AIDS activist, advocating for equitable, affordable and sustainable access to treatment, care and support for people living with HIV and AIDS in the country. During the 10th Anniversary Conference held by the Swedish Workplace HIV and AIDS Programme, he gave a moving and inspiring testimony of how he became an advocate. His story is one that highlights personal leadership, passion and the importance of a good support structure when dealing with HIV diagnosis.
My task is to give HIV and AIDS a human face. I liken my situation when I found out about my status to what is happening with Ebola, there was no treatment, no one to take care of the sick and a lot of stigma. My CD4 count was a single digit at the time of my diagnosis. I was afraid to tell my wife, until she told me she just wanted to know what was wrong with me. I asked if she was prepared for HIV testing, to which she responded, yes.
A positive diagnosis can be a nightmare if the spouse or partner is not supportive. In fact I managed to pull through because I had a very supportive wife and my family was also on hand to help me out. It is very important for couples to participate in couples counselling as it allays fears and subsequent backlash and misunderstanding that may ensue after a positive diagnosis. Suffice to say, women are more understanding if their husbands are found to be HIV positive first, but in most cases it is complete opposite if the woman tests HIV positive first. I was lucky that my wife did not abandon me.
The physician who diagnosed me at the time told me that treatment was expensive and not sustainable. At ZWM 286 per month(about USD 48) the cost was beyond the reach of many. My uncle bought the expensive medication before I got back on my feet and started purchasing the drugs on my own. I made the decision to leave my job as a software engineer in order to join the advocacy movement. I wanted to provide leadership so that each and every person living with HIV could feel special. After reading a story in news magazine on People Living with HIV (PLWH), I volunteered to be part of a PLWH group.
Felix Mwanza is now the Director of the Treatment Advocacy and Literacy Campaign (TALC) based in Lusaka, with over 100 affiliates throughout the country. TALC works with nongovernmental, faith and community-based organisations focusing the nation’s attention on the plight of PLWH. Zambia has a generalised epidemic mainly driven by unprotected heterosexual activity. TALC advocates for behaviour change sensitising communities on the importance of having one partner and using condoms.
Felix is an example of personal leadership in health and strongly believes in the importance of everyone playing their part. When the existence of the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was threatened in 2008, Felix wrote a letter to President Obama petitioning for the continuation of the commitment to support HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and care programmes in developing countries, as stopping it would have meant a death sentence for many people, himself included.
He encourages others to be responsible citizens. I am a global activist, I contribute to the national development of this country, through paying my taxes.
Felix also highlights the important role workplaces can play in addressing HIV and AIDS.
Invest in workplace programmes. If I had died at the time I was diagnosed, my skills and expertise would have gone to waste. Investment in workplace programmes allows the retention in expertise ultimately improving productivity. There is a ripple effect, people you save through such programmes will also save other lives. My CD4 count is now above 1000. I have been on first line treatment for the last nine years. I shall continue to advocate for treatment and prevention strategies.
SWHAP has been working in partnership with four Zambian companies, Atlas Copco, SKF, Sandvik and Orica Mining Services, in the Copperbelt since 2005 and more recently with ABB, Bayport, Ericsson and Scania Hazida in Lusaka. In total over 6400 employees have been reached through the programme in Zambia, including companies participating in the Atlas Copco Supply Chain Programme. The SWHAP Supply Chain Programme assists companies in mentoring their customers and supply chain in setting up and implementing HIV and AIDS programmes.