HIV/AIDS counselling now focuses more on lifestyle
Many know Dr Shaun Whittaker as a soft-spoken counsellor who is always willing to help.
Likewise, those who live in Windhoek West may have observed him religiously going for his morning jog.
“I see myself as a runner. I’ve always loved running,” Whittaker told New Era from his office in Jenner Street, Windhoek West.
He has competed in numerous marathons including the famous Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town. Lending a listening ear can be emotionally draining, he admits. And, to keep sane, Whittaker literally runs his problems away.
“Running is one of the methods I use to sustain myself and while I run I listen to music,” said the father of two children. Albeit his busy schedule Whittaker, who is also a parent, loves to spend time with his family.
“I love being a parent. It’s a very important part of my identity,” said Whittaker who is also an avid soccer fan.
“I follow the English Premier League and I am a Manchester United fan,” Whittaker tells this reporter with a smile in his air-conditioned counselling room.
This reporter could not help but notice the stacks of books packed in a large cupboard. He then shares that reading is an important part of his life.
“I read mostly on weekends,” he says, explaining that his busy life means that he reads only when he is free, which is on weekends. As a matter of fact, Whittaker belongs to a reading club.
“I am currently reading Marx and Latin America by Hosé Aricó, an Argentinian radical thinker.” Furthermore, Whittaker refers to himself as a “people’s person”.
“My job gets me to relate to different people and that means personal growth for me too,” he said.
However, he adds: “I am unfortunately limited in that I can only see people who have medical aid.” That means he does not get to see the broader society.
“I don’t get to see people who are unemployed, for example, people who don’t have the financial means and those are very often the people who need this (counselling) the most actually,” he said, explaining that socio-economic conditions have compelled him to attend to patients with medical aid only.
Whittaker, who has been counselling people for the past two decades, says that there has been a shift of focus in counselling people with the disease. Despite society making strides in the field of HIV/AIDS many Namibians live with the disease. Statistics show that there are about 220 000 HIV-positive people in Namibia. In fact, Minister of Health and Social Services, Dr Bernard Haufiku, said at the launch of the World AIDS Day report in Windhoek that that is just the tip of the iceberg, as many people have not been tested for HIV. Out of the 220 000 HIV-positive people in Namibia, only 68 percent of them (150 000) are on antiretroviral treatment.
“It (HIV) is a big problem in the country and I do see many patients who are HIV positive,” said Whittaker. People no longer die from the illness as they used to some 20 years ago when antiretroviral drugs were a luxury, said Whittaker. This means that counselling people has more to do with their lifestyle.
“The one thing that I think we need to make people aware of is that people who are HIV positive, or who have AIDS, also have to stay away from sugar and sweet things in order to protect their immune system,” said Whittaker.
That message “unfortunately” does not get through strong enough, he adds. “People don’t realise that sugar and sweet things in general, especially fizzy drinks, are bad for the immune system. People who have this condition or any other serious illness like cancer need to stay away from sweet things because sugar is a poison. It breaks down the body … it breaks down the immune system and people have to realise they do need to look at their nutrition.”
“The colon likes bitter things like garlic, ginger, lemons and green vegetables and so on. So, people who are HIV positive should stay far away from sugary things.” The misconception that sugar gives energy only destroys the body, stressed Whittaker.
“Twenty years ago we were dealing with people who were dying of AIDS. And the focus of counselling was on that but we don’t have that anymore because of ARVs. Now the focus is more on getting people to comply with the medication and being able to guide them in terms of a healthy lifestyle,” he further explained.
A HIV-positive person can now live up to 80 years. “There is no reason for people to die from this condition. They have to stay away from alcohol because alcohol will clash with the ARVs,” he said.
According to a UNAIDS report launched in Windhoek recently, people who are living with HIV are at an increased risk of developing age-associated non-communicable diseases, which may worsen HIV disease progression. In addition, high rates of smoking among people living with HIV have a significant impact on health. “People living with HIV and receiving treatment may lose more life-years through smoking than through HIV,” reads a portion of the report.
The focus has really shifted in counselling and it’s more about those broader lifestyle issues. “I’m also very optimistic and I tell patients that there will be breakthroughs in the very near future so people should not lose hope,” he said.
Despite the many breakthroughs in the area of HIV, some people do not take the news of being HIV positive well “because they think that it’s over with their lives”, he says. Some of the concerns that patients have include fears of not getting married and having children.
“Of course you can still get married to someone if you are positive. You can still have children. I mean nowadays with artificial insemination you can have children and of course the ARVS are very effective in terms of preventing mother to child transmission of the virus,” said Whittaker.
Once people realise that they can still have a relatively normal life they can accept their status, he added. “It’s not a death sentence. It felt like that 20-30 years ago but not anymore. And, there has been a lot of breakthroughs as well in terms of how to understand and deal with this virus.”
Whittaker also attends to many couples who are in a discordant relationship.
“It’s very common. It doesn’t mean that the negative person will be infected. People can use protection and if there is a slip-up they can use ARVs (to prevent contracting the disease) provided they seek medical attention as soon as possible, within 48 hours,” said Whittaker.