Activist in the Aids frontline

International Aids activist Marvelyn Brown has been in the frontline of the HIV epidemic since she discovered she was HIV-positive in 2003.

International Aids activist Marvelyn Brown has been in the frontline of the HIV epidemic since she discovered she was HIV-positive in 2003.

Shunned and rejected by some of her friends and family members after disclosing her status, Brown, then 19, discovered why most young people were fearful of knowing their status and took a decision to take the challenge head-on.

She embarked on a mission to encourage young women to get tested and take responsibility for their own status.

Brown of Nashville, Tennessee, has been named as one of the 25 Heroes in the Fight by the US Rap-IT-Up campaign for speaking about her experience and as a young woman living positively with HIV.

She has featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and has given talks globally on HIV prevention. Brown is currently in the country to share her experiences with South African audiences and to raise awareness about the rising infection rate among women and youth and how it can be curbed.

Sowetan's Khanyi Nkosi had a one-on-one with her. This is what she discovered.

Khanyi Nkosi: Describe yourself in three words.

Narvelyn Brown: Marvelous! Marvelous! and Marvelous!

KN: How did you contract the virus?

MB: I contracted the virus through unprotected sex with a man that I was in love with.

KN: Were you angry with him for infecting you?

MB: I was mad at him but I very quickly realised that it was my choice, my responsibility and I had to face the consequences.

KN: Did you do the test voluntarily or were you forced?

MB: Oh no, I did not volunteer but was given the test as a last resort to save my life while I was unconscious in the intensive care unit of a hospital.

KN: How did you take the news?

MB: I took the news well, but only because I did not know much about HIV then. I was just happy after two weeks in hospital that the doctors found out what was wrong with me.

KN: How long have you been living with HIV?

MB: I have been living with HIV for four and a half years.

KN: How long did it take before you revealed your status to your friends and family - and ultimately to the rest of the world?

MB: On the day that I found out I was HIV-positive, my family, my friends and the rest of Nashville found out as well. I told five people and the rest is history.

KN: How has discovering your status changed your life?

MB: Discovering my status has changed my life in a very positive way. I have found self-love, self-respect and self-responsibility. HIV became my teacher.

KN: Are you currently dating? Was there a time when you had to bow out of the dating scene after discovering your status?

MB: The secret is I never stopped dating after discovering my HIV status. I have always told the men that I was seeing of my status up front.

KN: How do they react?

MB: I get mixed reactions from different people. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative. My favourite response of all time is, "you are a great actor".

KN: Has living with HIV changed your outlook on life, if so, how?

MB: HIV has changed my outlook on life because I do not take things for granted and I now love myself, and I love my life.

KN: Why is it that many young people living with HIV find it difficult to disclose their status?

MB: I find that young people are afraid of the stigma and negative images that surround HIV. They fear isolation and rejection. They should always remember that you have to accept yourself for who you are and what you have before anyone else can.

KN: What are the latest statistics on the contraction of HIV by young people?

MB: Youth between the ages of 13-25 make up half of all new HIV infections in the world. I was also told by a South African doctor that if South Africans do not change their behaviour, it is likely that 50percent of the population will be infected by HIV.

KN: Are educational campaigns getting through or do we still need to do more to drive the message home?

MB: There is never enough information about HIV. More needs to be done. Each and every day people become infected and die from HIV. We have a big problem, people.

KN: In your view, which should be the key message - abstinence or practising safe sex?

MB: Is this a trick question? Practise safe sex - use a condom.