HIV & AIDS activist Cindy Pivacic has made it her life’s mission to reverse the stigma around HIV & AIDS by using available and commonplace technology to both counsel patients and educate healthcare workers about effective HIV care.

“With over 5 million South Africans living with HIV, it’s essential that we understand and improve the patient experience when it comes to HIV treatment,” said Pivacic.

After being diagnosed with HIV & AIDS in 2004, Pivacic experienced first-hand how unhelpful and ineffective HIV pamphlets provided by medical institutions were in helping a newly diagnosed individual come to terms with their situation. “People living with HIV must be actively encouraged and supported from the start to seek pre- and post-counselling to encourage adherence to HIV medication and the required lifestyle changes,” said Pivacic.

Pivacic went on to explain that the human component can’t be removed from HIV care and the benefit of appropriate counselling from a healthcare professional can encourage people living with HIV to disclose their status not only for the benefit of their own health but also to raise awareness and combat misconceptions around a disease that has become more manageable than diabetes.

Due to the stigma associated with the disease however, people who are HIV positive are often reluctant to use or be seen near public counselling centres. Pivacic has set out to bridge the gap by providing private and confidential counselling to patients through readily available mobile technology that supports apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype.

“I also use these tools for online support groups where participants have the option of anonymity which has proven to be a great way to educate people about their status and keep them up to date with the latest information on nutrition and HIV medication,” said Pivacic.

Outside of individual counselling, Pivacic also offers workshops for the workplace to create awareness about the disease and curb the associated stigma and discrimination. “My presentations and workshops are aimed at healthcare organisations, corporate institutions, NGOs, as well as company functions and conferences; and are designed to be enlightening and motivational,” said Pivacic.

According to Pivacic, healthcare workers can sometimes contribute to the stigma of having HIV. “Healthcare workers are normally the first point of contact a patient has after being diagnosed. I and many of the individuals I counsel have been subjected to judgement and careless, insensitive treatment from healthcare workers. My work with healthcare professionals aims to understand the impact they can have on a newly diagnosed individual and encourage them to be supportive despite their workload and the patients waiting to be seen.”

Pivacic went on to explain that her workshops for healthcare professionals offers participants the latest information on HIV & AIDS and tools they can use to assist a patient in finding appropriate counselling  and how they can become more active in creating awareness around HIV prevention.

Pivacic also believes that removing the stigma associated with HIV & AIDS means changing the language around it. “Unfortunately, HIV is still referred to as a ‘dirty’ disease possibly because it’s predominantly transmitted through sexual intercourse. We need to encourage the correct terminology, instead of referring to being ‘clean’ after an HIV test that came back negative, we need to advocate the usage of ‘clear’ or ‘negative,’” said Pivacic.

“In reality, people living with HIV can be their own worst enemy because they don’t disclose their status for fear of being rejected by their friends and family but we could make great strides collectively if more people were willing to disclose their status. For this to happen though, those around them need to offer support and acceptance without discrimination – and that often starts with the healthcare worker,” concluded Pivacic.

Cindy Pivacic is a respected Trainer, Speaker, HIV Activist and IEC (Information-Education-Communication) Facilitator on HIV & AIDS who has collaborated with organisations such as info4africa. She is also the author of The Deadly Seducer, an account of how she came to contract HIV & AIDS and how she responded to it.

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