Wade Schaerer: living positively with HIV
Wade Schaerer (30) dived head-first into HIV advocacy after he was diagnosed positive in 2017. He fights for the rights of other HIV-positive people and encourages them to stay on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment so that they can live long, healthy lives.
Wade Schaerer has three messages for people who have recently been diagnosed with HIV: "Firstly, start antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to get the virus under control," he says. "Secondly, forgive yourself and the person who gave you HIV. And, thirdly, accept that this is your 'new normal' and live your best life. Your life does not end with HIV."
Wade was diagnosed with HIV in March 2017. He made his status publicly known soon after his diagnosis. He says that, as strange as it may sound, having HIV has given him a purpose. He's achieved a lot over the past four years. Through his Positive Vibes website and Instagram account, he works to create awareness of and give people access to up-to-date, relevant resources on HIV. Wade is also a brand ambassador for an HIV self-test kit.
Know your HIV status and make informed decisions
Wade passionately encourages people to know their HIV status and recommends regular screening checks.
- Done your Vitality Health Check for 2021, or want to book for the new year? It's not too late to book this convenient and simple screening test for your blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol, assess your weight, and do your non-smoker's declaration and voluntary HIV test. Vitality members will earn 7 500 Vitality points for their first HIV test and 1 000 points for each yearly test after that.
"If we are really serious about ending the HIV epidemic in South Africa, we need to normalise HIV testing," says Wade. He points out that self-test kits make this easy. "You don't have to go to a clinic anymore and fear being judged by a nurse. Now, you can buy a test at a pharmacy and take the test at home."
It takes three months from the time you are exposed to HIV to see a positive result on a self-test kit. So, it's important to test again after three months if you were exposed and your test result came back negative.
"A simple test that takes only 15 minutes can really change your life! Knowing your HIV status means you can make informed decisions", says Wade. "If you are HIV-positive, you can start treatment. If you are negative, you can decide to go on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medicine and continue to use condoms to protect yourself and your partner during sex." How is HIV spread?
- HIV is spread through unprotected sex, sharing needles or syringes, pregnancy or breastfeeding. It can also be spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants, although this is rare.
- HIV can't be spread through sweat, saliva or urine. This means it cannot be passed on through coughing or sneezing, or hugging, kissing or sharing towels or a toilet seat with someone who has the virus.
What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
- HIV (which stands for 'human immunodeficiency virus') causes HIV infection.
- AIDS (which stands for 'acquired immunodeficiency syndrome') is also called advanced HIV'. It is the last stage of HIV infection. At this point, the immune system's CD4 cells have decreased dramatically because they have been attacked by HIV. CD4 cells are a type of white blood cell that moves through your body to fight against bacteria, viruses and other germs.
- A person can have HIV (the virus) and not develop AIDS. Lifestyle changes and the right medicine can help to keep the virus at bay. Many people live with HIV for many years without developing AIDS.
You must confirm a positive self-test result with a blood test
A positive result on a self-test kit must be confirmed with a blood test carried out by a healthcare provider. If the blood test confirms a positive result, a medical professional can help a newly diagnosed HIV-positive patient get the right treatment and counselling.
Wade is concerned that so few people have tested themselves for HIV since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns. "Often, people only learn their status when they actually have AIDS. You definitely don't want to get AIDS and COVID-19 at the same time. That's why it's important to know what's going on with your body," he says.
- Read up on why people who have HIV are considered to be at risk of serious COVID-19 illness.
"HIV can happen to anyone."
Wade admits that he was ignorant about HIV when he received his positive result. He warns that it is dangerous to "diagnose HIV with our eyes". Just because someone looks healthy or has a good job, doesn't mean that they don't have or can't get HIV.
"Your race, gender, culture, sexual orientation and age are irrelevant here. HIV can happen to anyone," says Wade. At the same time, he reminds us that, "HIV should not limit anyone. A person living with HIV is still worthy and deserving of love. Your value isn't determined by your viral load."
Smash the stigma around HIV
When Wade was diagnosed, the research he found said he had five years left to live. "It was terrifying and I remember spiralling out of control," he recalls. "I thought, I'll be 30 when I die!" However, Wade turned 30 this year and he's healthier than ever.
He explains that HIV-positive people can live long and healthy lives: "HIV is not a death sentence anymore. I think it's probably the easiest chronic condition to manage. Follow your doctor's advice, take your medicine and live a healthy lifestyle - and that's it." Wade lives a super-fit and healthy lifestyle to manage his condition and keep him feeling on top of the world.
New status: Let's become HIV-undetectable
Wade believes that talking openly about HIV will smash the stigma around living with the virus and help save many lives in South Africa. He urges people who have HIV to stick to their ARV treatment. "We can be the last generation who live with HIV if we start and stay on our treatment," he believes.
Several people who stay on ARVs develop an undetectable viral load, which means they can't spread the virus to other people. "Undetectable equals untransmissible - and this is an important message which I explain on my website," says Wade. "This has been a game-changer for me. In the past, you were either HIV-negative or HIV-positive. Now we have a new status when it comes to HIV: We're HIV-undetectable."
Wade says he was very worried that he would transmit HIV to other people after he was diagnosed. "Having an undetectable viral load means I can love without fear," he says. "I can have sex without fear. If I wanted a child, I could have a child without fear. If you're a mother with HIV, you could breastfeed your child without fear."
Discovery Health Medical Scheme's HIV Care Programme is there for Wade
Wade is a Discovery Health Medical Scheme member and a member of the Discovery Health HIV Care Programme. He says his case manager has helped him to manage his condition. She recently reminded him to go for his twice-a-year blood tests, after he forgot to do so.
The HIV Care Programme helps HIV-positive members to access clinically sound and cost-effective treatment. It gives them and their Premier Plus GP various tools to monitor and manage their condition.
"It's important to look after your mental health, especially when you're living with HIV."
Wade's HIV advocacy is still developing. He wants to get a public-health qualification so he can become more involved in sharing information and positive messages about HIV in South Africa. He also points out that, although he's known as the "positive vibes guy" he does have bad days, just like anyone else. "Some days I'm torn apart and other days I'm healing," says Wade. "That's part of life. It's important to look after your mental health, especially when you're living with HIV." Find out more about the Discovery Health Medical Scheme HIV Care Programme.
Photo credit: Engage Men's Health.
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