“Too many people are dying because of HIV denial”


Wesley Kumwenda is an award-winning broadcaster turned HIV activist. He lives and works in Malawi, a country with one of the highest HIV rates in sub-Saharan Africa and where Aids is the leading cause of death. As the first Malawian journalist to disclose his HIV-positive status, Kumwenda is a founding member and Executive Secretary of the Network of Journalists Living with HIV in Malawi. Here, he talks to Equal Times about it’s like to be one of 1.2 million Malawians living with HIV.

As a veteran broadcaster turned HIV activist what do you think can be done to improve the current HIV/Aids crisis in the country?

There is a long way to go in the development of an advocacy agenda for people living with HIV in Malawi. As a veteran broadcaster, I have trained fellow journalists on HIV and Aids risk perception to increase the access and uptake of HIV and Aids services in the country.


What is it like living with HIV in Malawi?

The Malawi government has mounted an impressive response to the HIV/Aids crisis. This is reflected by a steady decline in HIV prevalence – from 14 percent in 2003 to 10 percent in 2011 and the reduction of new annual infections from 100,000 in 2003 to 46,000 in 2011, according to a UNAIDS report. However, stigma and discrimination continue to be a major challenge. Too many people are still dying because of HIV denial.


Media houses in Malawi do not have sound HIV workplace policies. What will it take for management teams to realise this is a human resource issue?

The Network of Journalists Living with HIV in Malawi recently visited media houses across the country. Interestingly, out of the 22 media houses we visited, only six had sound HIV/Aids workplace policies. Sixteen, including some of the most influential media houses in the country, did not have any policies on HIV/Aids in the world of work at all. However, our advocacy has brought about change and we have seen more journalists opening up about their status. Our advocacy has also led to the review of editorial and HIV programme content in the media.


What has been your experience since disclosing your HIV status?

I am person who was living in denial of my HIV-positive status and later became an HIV advocate. But openly disclosing one’s status comes with its own challenges. For me, it was a major eye-opener. I started my ART treatment in 2000 and my wife and I have been blessed with a daughter who is HIV-negative. This shows you how important it is to disclose your status. We live just as any other HIV-free family but more people need to open up about their HIV status so that they can do the same.


What are the main challenges facing the HIV response in Malawi?

Stigma and discrimination is still the main factor derailing the HIV response. I came across a lady who stopped her ART treatment because she was made to feel ashamed for having to take the drugs. Also, Malawi’s healthcare sector needs to increase access to HIV testing and treatment. We have just one doctor per 50, 000 people in Malawi, therefore there is a critical need to increase funding for healthcare. HIV testing must also be integrated with other treatments – this is the only way that HIV will be looked at as just any other health condition.