If World AIDS Day, which falls on Thursday, needs a person to rally around, Sindi Fitriarti Putri is a fine candidate.
She is now tall, attractive and eloquent, but less than two years ago, she was a shell of herself, gravely ill and gutted by a doctor’s diagnosis that she had a life-threatening condition.
“I had a case of diarrhea that wouldn’t go away for months,” she told the Jakarta Globe. “I was bedridden, too sick to do anything, and my doctor told me I had colon cancer.”
In early 2010, Sindi switched to another doctor who suggested that she take an HIV test. She tested positive.
“At first I was shocked. I couldn’t accept the reality and I didn’t want to see anyone, I felt like they would reject me.”
After quitting her job, Sindi became even more depressed because she had no activity to fill her time. But while browsing the Internet, she learned about the Indonesian Network of People Living With HIV (Jothi), where she now works as a campaign coordinator.
“Having an activity gave me a sense of purpose because I learned there was so much work to do to enhance HIV/AIDS programs in this country,” Sindi said. “By working I got better psychologically, and what’s even more amazing, because I was happier, I also became much healthier physically.”
She also became the national coordinator for the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, a network of people living with HIV and their supporters. Sindi even organized a mass rally in front of the EU office here several months ago to protest a pact signed by the EU and India that could hamper the supply of affordable antiretroviral drugs for people living with HIV/AIDS in Indonesia.
Rukia Cornelius, a South African activist from the World AIDS Campaign, said being diagnosed with HIV “gives you a second chance to rearrange your life, to make yourself a better person.”
“People should understand that getting infected with HIV is not the end of the world. It’s a lot to take, but you don’t have to stay depressed, because it’s not the end of the world, it’s just the beginning of a new one,” she said.
Cornelius said that for people diagnosed with HIV, acceptance was the first crucial step to continue on living. Following acceptance, she said, they should gather as much information as possible about the treatment they needed.
“Be treatment-literate, accept the fact, because the only other alternative is dying,” she said.
She said that with proper treatment and a stringent regimen of ARVs, people living with HIV could lead relatively normal lives.
“These day [fewer] people … die from AIDS-related diseases — [more] die from strokes, diabetes and other diseases caused by unhealthy lifestyles,” she said.
Ekarini Aryasatiani, the head of the HIV working team at Jakarta’s Tarakan Hospital, said people living with HIV who could manage their CD4 levels, an indication of their relative immunity, were not much different from those who were not infected by HIV.
“If your CD4 level is high and the viral load is undetected, you can have sex without transmitting the virus to your partner even without condoms. You can get pregnant, have healthy babies as long as you consult with your doctor, and you can live to the age of 70 or older,” she said.
She added that as long as they stuck to their ARV treatment, rested well and stayed optimistic, people living with HIV would be fine. Depression, she went on, would only exacerbate their condition because their CD4 levels would drop drastically.
Sindi agreed that her HIV diagnosis was not a death sentence.
“I thought it was really the end, that people would leave me, but then I fell in love again and my life is fine,” she said. “Now I have the courage to plan my marriage and even have children.”