Living with HIV in Armenia: ‘Society’s cruelty will kill you’

22 August 2017
An information sheet about HIV/AIDS in Armenian (vagharshapat2.am)

An Armenian women infected with HIV by her husband sat down with OC Media to talk about her life with the virus, the struggle to reclaim her place in society, and the newly found strength to overcome public prejudice and be able to enjoy her life again.

‘My life is divided into two stages, before 2013 — and after. There are two of me now, the first one sees everyone, and the other sees only me. That me is ill with AIDS’, Anna (not her real name) tells OC Media.

Anna is 40, and lives in Ejmiatsin, just west of Yerevan. To those around her, she appears cheerful — an entirely different picture to how she looked a few years ago.

‘A bad illness’

Anna (Armine Avetisyan/OC Media)

‘Five years ago the pain began, I felt awful at work. Somehow I made it home and became bedridden. I was told that I had allergies to dust, because I was working with archival documents that were dusty. But I realised that no one could feel so bad because of dust. I was dying. I decided to undergo a general medical examination. It was September 2013 when I was given a blood test at a hospital. Then I went to Yerevan because the doctor suspected that I had a “bad illness” ’, says Anna.

The doctors in Yerevan had already diagnosed her with AIDS. Anna didn’t tell her relatives; she was scared that people would shun her.

‘I was infected by my husband; he died in 2014. He was addicted to drugs and infected with HIV, but I learnt about this only in the last days of his life. He tried his best to hide his disease. He lived and worked in Russia, and I lived with our two sons in Armenia. When he was in a terrible state, he was transferred to Armenia. His body was decaying… He died…’ Anna says.

It is difficult for Anna to think about the past.

According to the Ministry of Health, around 3,600 people in Armenia are infected with HIV, half of them unaware of it. Around 70% of them are men. Of HIV infected individuals, approximately 1,140 (289 women, 24 children) were diagnosed with AIDS.

The number one cause of infection in Armenia is through heterosexual sex, accounting for 66% of cases, according to the Ministry of Health. Twenty-five percent of cases are from intravenous drug use. Most registered patients in the country were infected abroad (around 60%). The number of children infected with HIV is 2% of the total.

Blood tests

‘When my first son was born, my husband and I were still healthy. At that time, we underwent tests and did not have any viruses. When I was pregnant for the second time, it was 2010, and again we had to give the tests, but my husband made excuses and did not come to give a blood test. I took the test… there was no problem. When I found out that I was infected, I realised why he did not come to give a blood test’, says Anna, whose seven-year-old son has gone through several rounds of testing, because doctors suspected that the child might also be infected.

‘Thank God, he is completely healthy. My older son is also healthy. I did not tell them why they had to give the tests, I took them to hospital with different pretexts. Fortunately, no virus was detected in both of them. But my eldest son, who is already twenty years old, had some doubts about my illness and preferred to leave Armenia. He now lives abroad’, Anna says.

According to the data of the Ministry of Health, no cases of HIV infection have been reported in any of the 150 children born of mothers who have been receiving preventive treatment for HIV transmission over the past ten years. This once again proves that these women can also become mothers and have healthy children. In Armenia, however, few people are aware of this official data, and many of them continue to believe that infected mothers will only bear infected babies.

‘I was not able to put an end to my life’

‘At first I wanted to commit suicide. When the diagnosis was clear, I was sent to a special clinic where I had to get some medicine. There I also met some other patients. They told us how the infected people were treated in their communities. The stories were terrible. I began to ask around the people I knew and it only deepened my depression. It turned out, that in case of HIV infection, that it’s just better to commit suicide, otherwise society’s cruelty will kill you. But I was not able to put an end to my life…’ the woman says.

Many steps have been taken to prevent the spread of the disease in Armenia. Information campaigns are being carried out to inform the public that HIV can be transmitted exclusively sexually or through blood. Still, most people in Armenia avoid the infected. There is a widespread myth that one can become infected by drinking from the same vessel as an HIV positive person, or even by shaking their hand.

Talking to the virus

Anna describes the pain of her life with AIDS as ‘a slow death’ not only because of the disease itself, but also how she’s been received by society.

‘When I realised that I couldn’t make myself commit suicide, I began attending meetings with psychologists and doctors. They helped me a lot. At first, I was taking dozens of medications every day given to me by the Ministry of Health. I had a box with coloured shelves with a pill for each hour. The pills I had to take in the evenings were like drugs, they cut me off from reality. My body was asleep, but my consciousness was awake. That’s when I learned to talk to myself. Do not think I’m crazy, but frankly, I talk with the virus that lives inside me. I always tell him that we live in the same body and “if you behave well, I’ll also be fine and we’ll live for a long time” ’, Anna says and smiles, adding that she now feels fully recovered today after the treatment.

Anna is still undergoing medical treatment. She is under the care of professionals and attends meetings at a private religious organisation, hoping they will help her to fill the gaps in her life.

‘They say there is no cure for AIDS. There is. It’s faith and inspiration to be good enough, to work hard on yourself. It’s the hope that you’ll live. Let me be an example. A few years ago, I was transformed from an old woman to a flourishing beauty that can’t complain about the lack of suitors’, says Anna, who has received a marriage proposal, but is not ready to accept it yet.

The woman is convinced that she will still live for a long time, because she has the will to fight the virus.

In post-Soviet Armenia, so far 550 cases of death from AIDS have been registered.

[Watch Chai Khana’s documentary from Armenia: Overcoming HIV status]

[Read on OC Media: Living with HIV in Daghestan]

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