• Anthony Chege is one of the 800,000 HIV-positive people in Kenya who cannot transmit the virus, even without a condom.
• He went public about his HIV status in April last year.
One morning in November 2008, Anthony Chege woke up in the two-room he shared with his mother to find her unusually still, with a cloth around her neck, tied to the roof.
The wailings of her aunts made him realise she had taken her life. She had tested positive for HIV the day before and feared her only child was born with the virus – a fact that was confirmed later through tests.
Although Chege was put on treatment, he says not many people expected him to live long. He is now 25 years old.
He went public about his HIV status in April last year.
“I promise I will always do my best to try and eradicate this devil called stigma that made you take your life from me,” he says about his mother, the late Mary Wanjiku.
This is easy to say. Chege soon learnt there is still a lot of fear and stigma surrounding HIV.
Some people become angry, or afraid, and ghost you when they learn the news.
Chege works in Kiambu town as a beauty therapist and runs a popular Facebook page and TikTok account promoting adherence to HIV drugs and fighting stigma. He goes by the name "Tony Shiks".
“I immediately lost many friends and clients since I came out positive but I also gained many others. Some people also befriended me out of pity, thinking they're doing me a favour because I am positive,” he says.
All these obstacles may not prepare you for another challenge: Finding love. This is where stigma looms large.
Dating while positive is one of the biggest challenges thousands of young Kenyans with HIV face, Chege says.
The Ministry of Health estimates there are about 134,000 adolescents living with HIV in Kenya.
Should they only date HIV-positive people? When and how do you reveal your status?
“I have never dated a positive person,” Chege explains. “You do not need to restrict yourself to dating only positive people. Nowadays you even get negative kids through adherence to antenatal clinics and elimination of mother-to-child transmission practices.”
The amount of HIV in Chege’s blood is so low that it cannot be detected by a lab test. He is one of the 800,000 people (about 75 per cent of the 1.2 million people on HIV treatment) in Kenya who cannot transmit the virus, even without a condom.
“But for me, condom is a must, and that’s my message for young people,” Chege says.
People with viral suppression, such as Chege, have a similar life expectancy to an HIV-negative person – provided they have good access to medical care and adhere to their HIV treatment.
But many youths with HIV are still unaware of this development in HIV treatment or are unwilling to accept the science because of the stigma that surrounds the virus.
As a result, the majority of the 22,000 Kenyans who died from Aids-related causes in 2021 were youths under 24 years, the National Aids and STIs Control Programme says.
The People Living With HIV Stigma Index (2021) found that 62 per cent of people delayed taking an HIV test because they were worried about people’s reaction. if they tested positive, and 47 per cent of people with HIV who stopped or interrupted treatment did so because they were scared of people finding out they had HIV.
“I came out last year in April because of the youths. I lost three friends because of defaulting. When you stop taking medication you still feel healthy, yet the virus continues to weaken your body, so when one disease strikes you go down very fast.
"Others go for prayers and stop taking drugs. They test negative for sometime but this is just because of viral suppression,” Chege explains.
He met his girlfriend, Esther Mwangi, who is negative, late last year.
Esther works with LVCT Health, a local HIV treatment advocacy organisation, as a mentor and ambassador for Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP). These are medicines taken to prevent getting HIV. Taking PrEP correctly reduces your risk of getting HIV to almost zero.
Chege was forthright with her that he was HIV positive.
“When I met Tony, I couldn’t tell he was positive because he’s very healthy. I couldn't believe it until he led me to his handle on social media. It was difficult in the beginning to accept dating him. I told him to give me two weeks to think,” she explains.
“I was afraid. What would people think? He was already public about his status. Many times I avoided walking with him hand in hand. I would keep a distance behind him. He was also very considerate and would cover my face on social media not to expose me. On my social media I would also post only his hand because he loves his watch,” she says.
“Now I’m very much okay, but some of my friends still say I’m risking dating a positive person. So I tell them about U=U.”
Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) is a message used in HIV campaigns. It means that someone with an undetectable HIV viral load, such as Chege, cannot transmit HIV, even without using condoms. This is a fact established through studies conducted all over the world including Kenya. It is also supported by the World Health Organization.
Esther lost her mother in 2021. Her father does not know she’s dating Chege. Her siblings advised her not to inform him immediately.
“My Dad doesn’t know about it. At the end of the day, I’m the one making decisions. I’m so much into Tony so I don’t really worry about that,” Esther says.
“People living with HIV are human and deserve the love and care and stigmatisation must end,” she adds.