Teenager Ashley Rose Murphy, a motivational speaker and HIV/AIDS charity ambassador describes what it's like living with HIV positive.
Teenagers think HIV and AIDS are diseases of the past. They are wrong. I’m the modern face of HIV.
‘Are you HIV positive?’ the doctors asked my mother. It was 1998 and I was three months old. I had been rushed to hospital after going into cardiac arrest. Doctors discovered I had Pneumocystis Pneumonia, common in people with weakened immune systems. HIV seemed the only explanation.
‘No,’ mum replied. But in truth she didn’t know. She’d never been tested before. A test later that confirmed that we were both positive. She had passed HIV on to me while I was still in her womb.
My mother was a beautiful woman with sparkling blue eyes, long brown hair and a wide smile. She liked to make jokes and sing rock songs. But she was also a woman plagued by addictions that made her unfit to care for me.
Social services called 200 foster families pleading with them each one to take me – a sick 3 month old baby, but nobody was interested. Finally one lady – Kari Murphy, who, at the time, had five children with special needs said ‘yes’. She rushed down to the hospital to see me, with my translucent skin and bald head, what little hair I had falling out on the hospital pillow. ‘She’ll be lucky to live a month,’ the doctor said. ‘She’s not going anywhere. She’ll live,’ Kari replied.
She was right. Today, I am 18 and I have more than lived: I have triumphed with her as my adoptive mother. At ten, I started to give talks to medical associations about being born with HIV/AIDS. I was one of the only children who allowed myself to be identified because I have always, even when doctors and my parents said it was not a good idea, been honest and public with my diagnosis. At 16, I started speaking with Free the Children, the world’s largest charity of kids helping kids.
In most Western countries, there is a perception that HIV/AIDS is still a disease exclusive to gay men. Teenagers think HIV/AIDS is a disease of the past. But they’re wrong. According to the United Nations, nearly 37 million people worldwide are infected with HIV/AIDS, of these 1.8 million are children who have contracted the virus the way I did: in vitro. The fastest growing demographic are young people, particularly girls and young women who contract the virus through male partners or rape.
It’s not easy growing up with HIV. I wasn’t invited to many parties. One neighbour forbade me to play with her kids, another to even enter their yard. Another friend’s family wouldn’t allow me to use their glasses, cutlery or dishes. But my big adoptive family always made me feel secure.
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Today, I’m a regular teenager. I’m in my first year at university, studying for my Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Theatre, and would like to be a professional actor, motivational speaker and musician. My boyfriend – yes I have one – is a guy met through a mutual friend. He knew my HIV status before we were introduced and was undaunted. He’s totally accepting.
I’m on medication – a cocktail of vitamins and have developed osteoporosis, thinning hair and mild cerebral palsy, which causes me to sometimes trip. But I am so fortunate to be here.
This year, I shared a stage with Charlize Theron, at a We Day event support her campaign, #GenEndIt, empowering young people to keep them safe from HIV/AIDS. Prince Charles also awarded me the Prince’s Youth Service Award for global leadership.
Nelson Mandela’s grandson Kweku told me a couple of years ago, as we waited in a green room to speak on stage together at an event: ‘You are exactly what the HIV/AIDS community needs.’
I didn’t know what he meant by that then, but I do now: I am the typical girl next door, dating someone’s son, making people painfully aware this is happening everywhere, not just in Africa or in the gay community. HIV/AIDS is still a pressing issue in our society and that’s why I speak up.
Ashley is an ambassador for the charities Free the Children, London’s the Big Stop Day and the BaSe and Washington’s Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric Aids Foundation,