Sunday, August 17, 2008

The sound of silence

Shashi Menon, a HIV positive patient, finds it prudent not to tell anybody about his disease

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was when Shashi Menon's pregnant wife, Preeti, was admitted to hospital in 2000 at Kozhikode that it was discovered she was HIV positive. For the next ten hours, the doctors and nurses passed cruel comments about her sex life till she gave birth.

Shashi then tested himself and came up with the same result. He knew how he had transmitted the disease to his wife: he had an affair with a widow who was infected.

Shashi decided he would not tell a soul about the disease "I felt that if educated people like doctors and nurses could be so biased, what hope was there that ordinary people would behave differently?" he says.

Terrified that people would come to know he was infected, he left Kerala and wandered around Tamil Nadu and Karnataka with his wife and baby girl. "I worked in a bakery shop, as a shoe salesman, and as a food supplier to hotels," he says.

Three years later, his health declined dramatically and he was close to death. He tried to get himself treated by general physicians, but they refused to help him when he told them he was HIV positive.

Evenually, he returned to Kerala and managed to locate a centre – the Jeevodaya Rehabilitation Centre for Aids patients – at Melechovva, Kannur. "My CD4 count had gone down to 55," he says. (Normal CD4 counts in adults range from 500 to 1,500 cells per cubic millimetre of blood.)

He sent Preeti and child to her parents' place, told his own family that he had a highly contagious strain of tuberculosis, and enrolled at the centre. "It was the turning point in my life," he says. "I saw other HIV patients for the first time, and realised I was not alone in the world."

He was given Antiretroviral (ART) drugs, and gained 8 kgs in 10 days. His CD count soared. Today, he weighs 63 kgs and is reasonably healthy. He has relocated to Thrissur and has a foodgrains business, but continues to keep his HIV+ status secret.

"I do a lot of social service, and dabble in politics," says Shashi. "If people come to know I am ill, they will shun me. Attitudes have changed a lot among a small section of people, but the majority has a bias."

He gives an example. "I have a close friendship with a retired high school principal," he says. "One day, when I was taking a stroll with him, he pointed at a barber shop and said, 'That barber has Aids. Please make sure you don't cut your hair from him.'"

Shashi pauses and says, "I have had meals with this man. You can imagine how quickly he will avoid me, if I tell him the truth."

But this secret life does take a toll. Whenever he has to go to the hospital, to buy the ART drugs, he has to tell neighbours and friends he is going to do some purchases for the family. At the hospital, if he comes across an acquaintance, he will say he has come to see a patient or to consult a general physician.

"I tell lies all the time," he says. "I am fearful that one day, the truth will come out. How will people treat my family and me? I am sure we will be asked to leave the locality."

This does not seem to be an overreaction on the part of Shashi. Recently, Preeti, 27, went to consult with a gynaecologist and the moment she said she is HIV positive, the doctor told her to wait. "The doctor treated my wife at the end, after she had sent away all the other patients," says Shashi, 38.

He says he has one aim in life. "I just want to make enough money, so that my family will be able to survive after I am gone," he says.

However, Preeti is not out of danger. Recently, her CD count went down to 190, while Sashi has managed a high of only 330. But the good news is that their daughter has tested negative.

(Names and locations have been changed)

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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