Tired of swallowing medicine every single day for close on 10 years, Ntombifuthi Radebe (32) was misled by her treatment buddy who encouraged her to ditch the pills and forget about the arduous habit.
But now, after four months of failing to take her antiretroviral medication as prescribed, Radebe has made herself resistant to the treatment that once worked for her – and is once again having to take pills every day for the rest of her life. And because she is now resistant to the first-line antiretroviral therapy, she has been placed on second-line antiretroviral therapy.
Radebe says she understood fully how the ARV treatment worked to keep her HIV infection under control by stopping the HIV virus from multiplying and growing in her body. The therapy also helped the immune system to recover, making it able to fight infections that may occur, as well as allowing the body to recover from any damage the virus may have caused. However, this knowledge did not stop Radebe from taking a break from her pills to instead experiment with traditional muti.
The mother of three has been taking ARVs for nine years and was also on bipolar treatment for 14 years without the knowledge of her family. Because of her fear of being discriminated against and stigmatised, she never disclosed her HIV status to her family. And so after almost a decade she was tired and desperately wanted a new beginning. With her treatment buddy on her side, this appeared possible.
In June last year, Radebe was introduced to a local sangoma who claimed to treat HIV. A desperate Radebe saw this as an opportunity too good to pass up as her treatment buddy assured her that the medicine worked.
“I remember thinking ‘What have you got to lose because you are already HIV positive. If it doesn’t work you can still go back to ARVs’,” Radebe explained.
In August Radebe says she made the ‘stupid choice’ to stop taking ARVs, and took traditional muti for almost five months.
According to Professor Francois Venter from the University of Witwatersrand’s Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, pill fatigue is a problem issue as any break in taking treatment is extremely dangerous for the patient.
“If you interrupt ARVs, you get a sudden surge of virus, which wipes out much of the immune system that maybe have taken years to rebuild. It’s a terrible decision,” Prof Venter explained.
He added that the challenges of mixing ARVs with traditional muti were not known, nor the dangers posed.
An edited version of this story was published by Health24.