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Such efforts have started to make modest inroads against the stigma surrounding HIV infection in African cultures. In the past year, Siona Nchotu, the woman who addressed the conference at the Brian Coyle Community Center, has spoken publicly numerous times about living with HIV. Back in 2002, before she was diagnosed with the disease, Nchotu says she was on the verge of death. She recalls that at one point it took her two hours to walk the three blocks from her home to Abbott Northwestern Hospital for a doctor's appointment. At the time, she believed she was suffering from some kind of lung infection. After arriving at the hospital she went into a coma that lasted five days, and she was diagnosed with HIV. Her T-cell count was virtually nonexistent. A Pentecostal Christian, she credits the mercy of God as much as medical science for saving her life. "With God all things are possible," she says.
When Nchotu initially returned home from the hospital after learning of her diagnosis, even her own children avoided her. "They were afraid," she relates. "I believe it was ignorance. They were not well-informed. When they first learned I was infected, they got mad."
Nchotu says that she decided to go public with her story in order to prevent other people from dying needlessly. Prior to leaving Cameroon, she lost family members to the disease. She is currently raising money to return to her homeland next year and speak about living with HIV.
"The stigma is an issue that we have to fight and get rid of," she says. "HIV is just a disease like any other disease. You can still get married. You can still have children. It's a disease just like any other disease."
In the months after Maria Juma initially tested HIV-positive, her physical condition deteriorated markedly. Despite being prescribed a course of antiretroviral drugs, she became physically weak. "I could not even use the walking stick that I was given," she recalls. "My legs could not carry me anymore. I was in a wheelchair. I could not put myself to bed. I could not do anything for myself."
Juma continued to hide her condition from friends, telling them that she was suffering from a neurological disorder. Her T-cell count dropped below 200, meaning that she had full-blown AIDS. Juma believed she was going to die. Unable to work, she and her husband were forced to apply for food stamps. At one point they paid the rent and the heating bill with an emergency-assistance grant from Ramsey County. "We just prayed," Juma says. "We just prayed that God give us encouragement."
After changing doctors and switching to a new course of anti-AIDS drugs, Juma began to regain strength in April of last year. She was able to abandon the wheelchair. Her viral load dropped to nearly undetectable levels, where it remains to this day. This summer she began working again part-time as a home health aide. On most days Juma's physical discomforts are minimal. "In the morning when I get up, maybe I don't feel like doing anything and I don't have any appetite," she says.
Juma credits the combination of medicine and prayer for her recovery. "I believe God helped a lot," she says. Even so, Juma is still wary of what the future holds. Because she is in the country on a temporary visa, she could eventually be forced to return to Kenya. She's in the process of applying for permanent resident status, but is uncertain if the application will be accepted.
If Juma does eventually return to her homeland, she fears that the life-saving medications she now relies on will no longer be available. In Kenya, as in most of Africa, HIV-infection remains an almost certain death sentence. "They think your case is done," she laments. "There's no sense in wasting drugs or money on you. If I go back there, I don't know how I will survive."
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