The association of thinness with being sick still plagues society and continues to fuel HIV stigma, and possibly non-communicable diseases Picture: Pexels

“I never wanted to gain so much weight. All I wanted to do was to make people stop calling me bad names because I am HIV positive,” said Emmerancia Mndawe.

When Mndawe fell ill and lost a considerable amount of weight people in her neighbourhood speculated about the reasons behind her weight loss, and some even told her she has ingculazi — a slang word for HIV. 

“When people in my community hear you’re seriously ill, they already diagnose you. It’s like we’re living amongst experts of diseases and chronic illnesses,” Mndawe told Health-e News. 

She suspected she may be HIV-positive, but it took a while before she went for a test.   

Speaking on Tuesday at the 9th South African Aids Conference in Durban, Professor Francois Venter, the deputy executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health Institute, said there is a massive benefit to starting antiretrovirals (ARVs) early. “But the problem in South Africa — in fact, anywhere in the world — is that patients that come in late [for treatment] have low CD4 counts,” he said. 

“We need to find out why patients are coming late. Is it denial? Is it the lack of friendly staff? Who are those people who are not availing themselves for treatment? It’s not a South African problem, it’s a human problem. There must be something psychological happening here,” he said. 

It was the fear of stigmatisation that prevented Mndawe from going for an HIV test. 

Mndawe soon developed severe oral thrush — a fungal infection in the mouth or throat, which according to research, is one of the earliest manifestations of HIV infection. Her mother begged her to eat, but Mncwande couldn’t swallow any food. 

That is when she realised that she had to get tested, and discovered she was HIV-positive. “I started ARV treatment immediately and the nurse gave me medication for TB and the oral thrush,” she said. 

But Mndawe weight loss was still an issue for her — even after starting treatment. She wanted people to stop gossiping about her HIV status. South African women — especially black women — associate being thin with illness, specifically HIV, a 2011 study published in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.  According to the research, black South African women were not motivated to exercise because they fear that losing weight would increase their chances of being stigmatised as HIV-positive.

“We’ve seen in our research that weight perception is cultural,” said Venter.  “Some patients have complained about having to buy new clothing, which can be a problem for poor communities.” 

Mndawe told Health-e News that people stopped suspecting that she was HIV-positive when she started gaining weight after a few months of being on treatment. “I told them I used diet pills and syrups and I’ve picked up weight again because I stopped. I don’t care if they believe me or not, because gaining this weight stopped them from saying I have ingculazi.

Health-e