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Dec 7, 2005

Belize City man: Living with HIV is my reality

Story PictureReporting stories on the topic of HIV/AIDS is a sensitive issue throughout the world. Here in Belize, stigma, discrimination, and fear has forced many infected persons to hide their condition so any public exposure is social suicide. But tonight we feature the story of one man who has decided to come forward and offer a voice to hundreds living with HIV.

Jacqueline Woods, Reporting
This is a typical day for sixty year old Reynaldo Smith, popularly known as ?The Snakeman.? Almost every day, Smith can be found on North Front Street in Belize City, making money the only way he knows how: posing with his pets for the tourists.

But there are days when Smith can barely lift his head, much less his snake. Earlier this year, he tested positive for HIV.

Reynaldo Smith, HIV Positive
?The loss of weight, headaches, and sometimes you have pain in the bones, the bones itself hurts, the joints. And it?s not because you have arthritis or anything like that, the sickness gives you that pain.?

Smith says he has braved possible discrimination and stigma against his family to expose the reality of living with HIV in Belize today.

Reynaldo Smith
?When I found out that I was HIV Positive, I thought that a lot of my family would understand, so I told some of them. And the majority of them have stopped talking to me, have stopped dealing with me, have stopped helping me anyway or accepting things from me.?

?A lot of people need the help more than I do and are not getting it either, because a lot of people are living in the streets and they need it, they need somewhere to stay, they need food. Sometimes they have to go eat out of the dirt box. A lot of them eat out of dirt box out there.?

?The people who are, how should I say, supposed to work with HIV needs to do a lot more than they are doing now. They have the facilities, they have the money to do it, and I think they should do an outreach programme.?

Smith believes he contracted the disease through sexual contact three years ago and maintains he was careful not to infect anyone else with the virus.

Reynaldo Smith
?I don?t think so, because from the first time I began suspecting myself of it, I stopped having sex completely, I stopped having relationships, sexual relationships with women and men. I don?t have any kind of sexual relations from that time until now. If I have spread it, it was before I began having the symptoms.?

The prospect of going public with Smith?s condition has raised eyebrows in the social services and medical community due to persistent accusations against him involving allegations of child molestation.

Reynaldo Smith
?I have heard it over and over, people tell me to my face.?

?I have never, never been arrested much less convicted for molesting any kind of child. All my convictions have been for violence. I mean grievous harm, wounding, murder, attempt murder, carrying a conceal weapon, robbery.?

But later, Smith did admit to a rape conviction in the 1980s. However, he contends those incidents are in the past, and he has paid his debt to society for the various criminal offences.

Today, Smith lives in this two storey building, Ghann?s Rest House, on East Canal. His living conditions are far from ideal. Smith is on medication for the deadly virus, which he receives through the Ministry of Health?s free anti-retroviral programme. He says one of the reasons why he decided to make public his health status is because he is disappointed by the way persons living with HIV and AIDS are treated by their families and would like to see a shelter built for people like him.

On a good day, Smith claims to make two hundred dollars a day and says he has no intention to stop hustling from the tourists because he does not believe they are at risk.

Reynaldo Smith
?No, I don?t think so. You can?t ketch HIV from me by talking to me or taking a picture with one of my animals. That?s totally unlikely to happen. They are not getting any blood from me or any kind of fluids passing from me to them, so that?s no kind of problem at all.?

Several AIDS-related institutions contacted by News Five indicated awareness of Reynaldo Smith’s condition and we understand he and his family are receiving assistance.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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