In Baltimore visit, young Zimbabwean extols life-saving HIV treatment

Seven years after diagnosis, 'I'm strong, I'm pursuing life'

September 25, 2010|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

It's not that he has trouble expressing himself in words. After all, at the tender age of 20, he's already written an autobiography.

But when he tells his story, as he did recently in Baltimore, the young man from Zimbabwe often points to a painting of his that he brought from Africa. It shows a figure standing at an open door, about to step out of a darkened room and into a place showered in brightness.

The meaning isn't hard to grasp. The figure depicts the artist himself, the soft-spoken yet confident Tichaona Mudhobhi. The light represents the promising future he now sees for himself despite the HIV infection that once ravaged his body and robbed him of hope.

Mudhobhi traveled to Baltimore as part of a six-week, cross-country speaking tour sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, which has its headquarters downtown. Recently he took part in a youth summit with 25 other HIV-positive young adults, including two from Africa. The majority were from Baltimore and other U.S. cities.

"At one time I felt unlucky," he said in an interview. "I felt, 'Why me?' But I got to accept it as time got on. It's the reality."

Now, he says, "I have a vision to inspire people, to motivate young people." As for himself, he says, "I'm strong, I'm pursuing life."

Mudhobhi's story speaks to the power of life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs to keep millions of HIV-positive people around the world from dying of AIDS. His experience also shows, he says, the benefits of peer-to-peer counseling and other forms of psycho-social support for those with the virus.

This month's youth summit, held at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-sponsored by CRS and Children's National Medical Center in Washington, provided a forum for the Africans and the Americans to trade ideas about how HIV can be prevented and managed in young people around the world.

Mudhobhi, who goes by the nickname "Tich," heard the Americans extol new uses of computer technology, including support groups on Facebook. While many Africans have limited Internet access, if any, he says he's eager to find online groups from an Internet cafe in his hometown of Bulawayo. He'll continue going to the Saturday support sessions he helps lead in Zimbabwe, but would also like to communicate across continents.

For the Americans at the youth summit, it was eye-opening to see how much value the African participants placed on their ability to obtain medication, said Dr. Ligia Peralta, who directs the adolescent HIV program at Maryland's School of Medicine. Mudhobhi and participants from Uganda and Nigeria made clear they don't take the pills for granted, she said.

"That was a nice message for young people in the United States," Peralta said, adding that her biggest challenge with HIV-positive youth in Baltimore is getting them to stick to treatment regimens.

HIV has been in Mudhobhi's blood his whole life. He contracted the virus at birth from his mother. But he was diagnosed only seven years ago at age 14. His father had recently died of AIDS and he himself had begun feeling ill, with a rash covering his face, and his body slowly wasting away.

After being tested at a CRS clinic near their home, he and his mother both began taking antiretroviral pills paid for by the U.S. government. It's a daily ritual. Mudhobhi takes one pill in the morning and one in the evening.

The HIV pandemic has hit southern Africa particularly hard, but a new report from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS contains some promising news. New HIV infections have declined by more than 25 percent in several African countries, including Zimbabwe.

Among Zimbabwean adults, the estimated HIV rate has dropped to 14 percent from 24 percent since 2001. The U.N. agency attributes this to better prevention. Even with life-extending drugs becoming more widely available, thanks in part to major funding from the U.S. government, the agency says nearly 400,000 adults and children in Zimbabwe were in "urgent need" of medication as of December.

One of those was Mudhobhi's older sister, Precious. Earlier this year, she died of AIDS.

After his diagnosis in 2003, Mudhobhi feared meeting a similar end. But today he spends a lot of time imagining his future. He has big ambitions. His varied goals include working as an artist, breaking into film production and writing. A high school graduate, he wants to attend college and is on the hunt for scholarships.

"He has big dreams, and he knows they are actually attainable now because of what he's been through and the fine folks in Zimbabwe who helped him get to this point," said Meg Barrett, a CRS official who has gotten to know him.

The relief and development agency sees him as such a compelling figure that it has asked him to tell his story before audiences in Milwaukee, Orlando, Fla., Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and New York. While he brought over 10 paintings, including a self-portrait titled "Inspirational Man," the work that he takes on the speaking tour is the one showing him heading into the light.

"I realized there is light after the darkness," he said. "I realized that there is light if I should walk out of this dark room."

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