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'HIV does not mean life is over'

Last updated on: December 02, 2016 18:45 IST

S Bhagyalakshmi, an AIDS counsellor, has been "living with the HIV virus for 20 years now."
She is an inspiring example of how AIDS should not stop anyone from living a fulfilling life.
A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com reports.

S Bhagyalakshmi

IMAGE: S Bhagyalakshmi counsels those who are HIV positive and how to protect oneself against getting the disease.
Photograph: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

The Indian Community Welfare Organisation -- a Chennai-based NGO -- has been working with the LGBT community for over two decades.

On World AIDS Day -- an annual event held for the first time on December 1, 1988, to show support for people living with HIV and to commemorate those who succumbed to it -- A J Hariharan, ICWO's founder and secretary, arranged for a huge candle which was lit in honour of the victims of AIDS.

"Our aim is to make sure that there are no new cases of HIV infection and to see that those who are living with HIV are allowed to a life of dignity," Hariharan tells Rediff.com

"They should not be scorned or isolated. They have the same right to life as any of us."

S Bhagyalakshmi, a guest at the event, has been "living with the HIV virus for 20 years now."

"I studied up to the 9th standard," she says. "I work with an NGO, ARM, as a counsellor. We work in rural areas."

Bhagyalakshmi says she was infected with the virus by her husband who "passed away many years ago."

She was "okay" for 16 years. "Then my white blood cells count started dropping at an alarming rate. I had to take ART medicines. I have been taking the first round of medication, that is provided for free by the government, for four years. Now, my WBC count is a healthy 600."

Bhagyalakshmi is grateful that her only daughter, who is 23, has not been afflicted by the disease.

"My daughter finished her MA and is working now. I have told her she has to work for two years as we don't have money for her marriage," she adds.

Her family and relatives shunned Bhagyalakshmi when she told them she was HIV positive.

"Those days," she recalls, "nobody talked about HIV and AIDS openly. I decided that hiding it would not help matters. I started talking about it. I knew this would help prevent further HIV infection."

People are shocked, she says, to see that 20 years later, she is hale, hearty and active.

"Many people thought I would die in a short while. Six years ago, one of my brothers started speaking to me again. He comes to my house with his family. Another brother still doesn't talk to me," she says.

Students commemorate World AIDS day

IMAGE: A J Hariharan, ICWO's founder and secretary, arranged for a huge candle which was lit in honour of the victims of AIDS. Photograph: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

Seven years ago, she developed diabetes which has complicated her health condition.

"HIV patients are supposed to eat well as the ART medicines I take are very strong. Our body has to have the strength to tolerate this medication," she says. "On the other hand, diabetes does not allow you to eat many things. Now, I control my diet."

Bhagyalakshmi remembers how she broke down when she was diagnosed with HIV. Counselling, she says, is vital for HIV victims.

"When I go to counsel people," she says, "it's all about preventing HIV infection and also about how to live with HIV. This is very important as most people think life is over when they are told that they are HIV positive."

"I too cried for months when I first came to know about my HIV," she recalls, "but once I started working with the NGO who came to comfort me, my life has changed. I have learnt to live with HIV and have also learnt to help others."

"Patients with HIV who I work with are encouraged when they see me and that is my greatest achievement and my greatest solace."

ICWO provided Rediff.com the following information about AIDS:

Global Statistics
• 35 million people have succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses (till the end of 2015).
• 36.7 million people, globally, are living with HIV (till the end of 2015).
India Statistics
• 2.17 million people live with HIV in India (till the end of 2015)
State-wise HIV positive statistics
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana 395,000
Maharashtra 301,000
Karnataka 199,000
Gujarat 166,000
Bihar 151,000
Uttar Pradesh 150,000
Rajasthan 103,000
Tamil Nadu 143,000
West Bengal 129,000
Punjab 1.24 lakh
A Ganesh Nadar / Rediff.com in Chennai