Praising God through two killer viruses

Christian motorcycle adventurer and bestselling author Heather Ellis reveals how God watched over her through two killer viruses –  HIV and Covid19.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was travelling the world by motorcycle. My journey started in Africa, and four years later in 1997 after riding from London to Hanoi along the Silk Roads of Central Asia, I returned to Australia with AIDS. I’d been diagnosed with HIV in London after having the test as a requirement for a three-month Russian visa. This was in 1995 and being infected with HIV was a death sentence. I was given five years to live. Back then there were no treatments that would control the virus from destroying the immune system and the patient developing AIDS. But, a year later in 1996 scientists cracked the HIV code and discovered effective HIV medications. Today, globally we face another killer virus, Covid19.

In finding effective treatments for Covid19, scientists are battle-ready as they have more than 30 years of research in virus epidemiology as a result of their fight with HIV, one of the smarter viruses in its ability to mutate.

Chinese scientists, with those in Europe confirming the findings, report that HIV and Covid19 share similarities in their ability to bind to human cells. It took a decade for scientists to outwit HIV, but their battle for a vaccine and a cure continues. With Covid19, the world will benefit from this research that could see an effective treatment rolled out within months rather than years.

I was one of the blessed ones to benefit from HIV research when effective treatments were discovered in 1996, but for millions this breakthrough came too late. Since the start of the HIV pandemic in the early 1980s, nearly 78 million people have been infected with HIV and it has killed more than 35 million people. Each year, one million people, more than half women and children, still die from AIDS after being infected with HIV and unable to access medications. This is mostly due to economic reasons; mostly because they had the misfortune to be born in a developing country and international charities and donations can only do so much. I wonder if this same scenario will play out once an effective treatment for Covid19 is found. There will likely be an intense scramble from rich countries for this treatment so they can lift restrictions and kickstart their economies. However, as pharmaceutical companies will be unable to keep up with manufacturing demand, will poor countries with limited resources to pay for the medications miss out?

The HIV medications I take are life or death for people like myself living with HIV. But I and others like me who are on treatment are at no greater risk of contracting Covid19 than the general population. I must take a combination of medications twice a day for the rest of my life. But this hasn’t stopped me living a ‘normal’ life. I went to university. I worked as a journalist for News Ltd and later for an international development organisation. I got married and had three children, all healthy and free of HIV because the medications control the virus so well it is undetectable in my body. In fact, there is a global campaign to raise awareness and break down stigma. It is called U=U which means Undetectable equals Untransmittable.

I’m also an author of two bestselling books, Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa and Timeless On The Silk Road: An Odyssey From London To Hanoi. Both these journeys, were epic in the distance travelled and the adventures experienced, but also in my own awakening to God. It was a slow realisation that was revealed to me in my trust in God’s voice and questioning the chance encounters and coincidences that I came to recognise as the guiding hand of a greater force. The reason I wrote about my travels was to share what had been revealed to me through those years spent on the road.

I gave my first book the title Ubuntu because this word, from the Bantu tribe in South Africa, encapsulates my experiences. Ubuntu means: ‘I am because we are’. It is the universal bond that unites us all as one. In those early days, of HIV there was no such bond between humanity. People living with HIV were treated with fear: shunned as diseased and dirty. Today, with Covid19, that bond is mostly growing stronger as humanity lives together in their social isolation via the digital world. And while Covid19 may very likely see us emerge into a new era of connectedness in humanity’s evolution, the old signs of stigma and discrimination that people living with HIV know only too well, is simmering below the surface as Covid19 continues to impact our lives and some are angry about it. But even though it has been more than twenty years since  my travels ended, I live my life with the same sense of connection with humanity and the same sense of expectation that things will always work out and that we are not alone. In living through Covid19, I have this same sense of faith.

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