- Release date
- October 24, 2009
- Laura Sheahen
- Regional Information Officer, Asia
- Phnom Penh, Cambodia
New Life for Pakistan's HIV Sufferers
October 24, 2009, —By Laura Sheahen
"A nun at our church told me I could have HIV," remembers Shakeela, a 35-year-old woman living in Lahore, Pakistan. "I asked my
husband, 'What is HIV?' "
"My husband said, 'No, she's lying. It's not a disease
that can be spread from me to you. It's not that dangerous.' "
Shakeela didn't understand what was happening, but she knew
that something was wrong. She had married her husband—a former soldier—in the
mid-1990s, and had a little girl in the first year of their marriage. The
baby died at 3 months. Over the next few years, her husband grew sick, and
eventually sold off many of their possessions to pay for treatments. "He
got really thin, but he told me, 'I just have a fever.' "
'My Husband Knew'
Things got worse. "In 1999, I had a baby boy, Waqas. A doctor came and took some of my blood and the baby's," says Shakeela.
"Doctor Rashid said I had HIV, and so did my baby."
"My husband knew that I and our baby boy were
One morning not long after, Shakeela and her brother walked
into the family's room. "My husband was lying in bed and his army pistol
was on the pillow," she says.
"He couldn't bear it. He lost all hope."
Her diagnosis and her husband's suicide were only the beginning
of Shakeela's spiraling nightmare. "I learned that my husband had HIV when
we married. He knew and didn't tell me." Waqas got sicker, and when he was 1 year old, could no longer hold on. "My baby boy died four months
after his father."
With her husband and children gone, and no idea how to cope
with a disease she had never heard of but thought was a death sentence, Shakeela
despaired. "I used to cry a lot. Everyone said I had only a year to
'I Took Hope'
But in 2000, a man named Nazir came to her parents'
house, where she went to live after her husband's death. Nazir urged Shakeela to
attend a meeting he ran for HIV-positive people.
At first, her parents wouldn't give her permission; it was
not traditional for women to go out in public without male relatives. "I
said to my parents, 'Please let me go,' " she recalls. "I fought with
them, and they finally gave me permission."
At the meeting, Shakeela realized that her illness didn't mean
the end of her life. "People there respected me," she says. "Whenever
I looked at other HIV-positive people, I took hope." Though
antiretroviral drugs were not available in Pakistan at the time, Shakeela learned more about managing her illness.
Shakeela's optimism increased, and even better things were in
store for her. At the meetings, she met Fanish, who wasn't
HIV-positive. "He fell in love with me and he came to my parents' house.
He asked me to marry him again and again."
Shakeela decided to disclose her status. "I clearly told
him 'I am HIV-positive,' and he still wanted to marry me," she smiles.
"He knew and he accepted me."
Before the couple married, they went for
counseling. "Nazir talked about [antiretroviral medications], side effects, problems we might face in the future," Shakeela goes on. "Fanish said, 'No matter what,
I want to marry her.' "
The couple decided to have children. Their daughter, now
6, "seemed like she was in good health when she was born," says
Shakeela, who decided to breastfeed her. "I said, 'If I don't breastfeed, I
don't feel like a real mother.' " When the child was tested at 18
months, she was found to be HIV-positive.
By this time Shakeela was taking medications, but there were none
available for children. "Before 2005, I was heartbroken,
because there was no HIV medicine for [my daughter]," Shakeela says.
"In 2005, I learned there is some, and I had hope for my daughter. I have
a healthy life, and she can too."
Though the 6-year-old has not been told her status, she takes
HIV medicine in liquid form every day and is in excellent health. "She doesn't want to
take it, though," says Shakeela. "She says the taste is sour." The
couple's second daughter, now 4, does not have HIV.
Shakeela and her daughter are visited by home care workers, funded by Catholic Relief Services, who make sure patients stay on track with their medicines, which are provided by the Pakistani government. The care plan also provides medicines for other infections that are common in people with HIV, and provides emotional support in a country where people with HIV face enormous stigma.
'Your Turn to Save Lives'
CRS programs throughout the world provide vital antiretroviral medicines and make sure patients take them properly. In Pakistan, CRS began distributing the medications before they were locally available.
"The drugs were supposed to be available, but they
weren't," recalls Luc Picard, who was country representative for CRS
Pakistan from 1999 to 2004. Picard knew a doctor in India who specialized
in HIV treatment and was communicating with a doctor in Lahore. "There was a young
man in Lahore who was 24 and dying; the doctor said he wouldn't survive more
than one week. That's what triggered me to take the train to India."
As a foreigner, Picard was allowed to travel between India
and Pakistan, countries whose tense political situation sometimes prevents Indian or
Pakistani citizens from crossing the border. In Delhi, Picard bought antiretroviral medicines and brought
them back to Lahore, where several men whose HIV had progressed to
full-blown AIDS immediately started taking them. The men, including the 24-year-old, recovered.
"They told me I had saved their lives," recalls
Picard. "I said, 'Now it's your turn to save the lives of other
Hope is now alive in hundreds of
patients who, like Shakeela, once faced despair. "I've suffered a lot, but
I've survived," Shakeela says now, hugging her 4-year-old daughter. "I
have a good life."
Shakeela's Christian faith sustains her as well. "I
strongly believe in God. I pray daily, in the morning and evening," she explains. "It's due to God that I am alive and have a family. It's God's
Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia.
She is based in Cambodia.