Unlike other medical conditions, HIV/AIDS is tainted by society to such great extent. People living with HIV (PLHIV) have unfortunately been subject to stigmatisation, which in consequence prevents many from wanting to verify their own status. World AIDS Day was commemorated on 1 December. It was based upon the premise of knowing one’s status, which was where Sriyal Nilanka, a member of the PLHIV community spoke about his personal experience in a project with WHO Sri Lanka. Sriyal, 29, works as a communications consultant in the HIV sector around advocacy, awareness, and prevention. We reached out to him not only to shed light on his experience, but also to shed light on the prevalent misconceptions pertaining to HIV/AIDS.
Q: What would you say got you into this path? Enlighten us on your story.
Well, I’d like to start off by saying that this is my experience, and it isn’t a reflection of the entire PLHIV community. Everyone has their own experience, which is different from one person to another.
I got myself tested in 2013, and it happened quite abruptly – mainly because the hospital staff wasn’t aware of the sensitivity involved in delivering that kind of information. However, once I did receive my results, I was in shock and it was quite hard news. At the time, I hadn’t seen anyone who was living with HIV, so I didn’t really have anyone whom I could reach out to.
Later on I found out that there have been individuals who have advocated for the propagation of this cause. I had my parents and friends with whom I was able to share my experiences with, although there are so many out there who don’t. So that’s what I’d say got me to into this path; to contribute as another community member with the aim of creating a stage for other PLHIV members to extend their voices.
Q: How far is awareness about HIV important?
Most individuals have stigmatised this condition because they’re unaware about the current status of it. In my opinion, most people don’t understand the difference between HIV and AIDS. HIV isn’t what it used to be twenty or thirty years ago. It has improved and is manageable. After a certain level, it isn’t transmittable, enabling a person to even go so far as to having unprotected sex. Awareness is also important in order to remove the fear of getting tested. In India, for instance, people get themselves tested quite frequently, and it isn’t as dire as it used to be.
Q: Tell us about the most recent project with WHO Sri Lanka on World Aids Day. Are there any recent or upcoming projects you’ve planned out?
WHO was planning on organising a programme in light of World AIDS Day, and they reached out to me. When they found out that I was a member of the PLHIV community, they wanted me to speak and share my experience, as that was likely to add more importance and value to the cause.
I haven’t organised any major projects, but I’m currently working on it on a personal level, where I’d talk to other PLHIV community members. I talk to them about getting themselves medicated; staying on their medication and even taking them to the clinic and helping them get their tests done. As a result of this, I have been approached by other individuals with HIV as well. That being said, organising large scale projects is something I wish to pursue in the future.
Q: Is cultivating awareness amongst school-going children important, and why?
Firstly, it is important to start off with sex education in order to create awareness about HIV/AIDS. Teachers don’t talk to their students and neither do parents to their children. You’d rather talk to your child and converse about the risks associated with it as opposed to leaving them completely ignorant until it comes to them, engaging in sexual activity. For instance, my effort to educate my child won’t be sufficient if everyone else around him/her isn’t aware about these matters.
Q: What is the single biggest challenge you’ve experienced?
Telling my parents was, I’d say up to date, the most challenging thing I’ve done.
Q: What are some of the common myths vs. facts pertaining to HIV/AIDS?
There are so many related to transmission. Most common ones would be not being able to date or not being able to have an active sex life again. This isn’t true as with the medication that’s currently available, the viral load can be controlled to bring it to an undetectable level.
Q: What’s your advice to people who have been recently diagnosed with HIV?
It gets better with time, and you get used to it. Taking your medication and getting yourself tested becomes a routine, and doing that is absolutely important. Some individuals get disheartened and discouraged in the process as it may seem tedious. But you need to understand that it’s just a different way of living and you adjust and adapt yourself accordingly. Willpower plays an active role here.
Q: Can we, as a country, do more to overcome this barrier? And how can others show their support to people living with HIV?
I have friends who are supportive, and even at the time I found out I was HIV positive, I was fortunate enough to have my friends with me to support me. But not all individuals have that. Hence, talking to those with HIV helps. It is important to make them feel welcome and not ostracised, whilst creating an environment where such matters could be openly discussed and spoken about. Also, I feel like sympathy or special consideration isn’t necessarily what most individuals are looking for. It is to be treated as normal individuals, whilst being aware of the fact that they may or may not require attention in relation to certain aspects. For instance, at a work place, employers could provide flexible working hours for their employees.
Educating ourselves is also important, as information is readily available out there. However, it is important to make this information available in all three languages, in a manner that could be understood by the layman. This makes the cause more approachable, thus beneficial for everyone in society
Q: What advice would you share with our readers?
Know your status. In Sri Lanka, testing is conducted free of charge, inclusive of the medication. So it’s always good to get yourself tested if you’re a sexually active person.
By Chenelle Fernando