• nurse–patient interaction;
  • perceptions;
  • public health nursing;
  • stress

Aim.  The purpose of this article is to report a study of the perceptions and experiences of nurses caring for people living with HIV/AIDS in the public health sector in South Africa.

Background.  The number of people living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa has escalated at an alarming rate. Many people being hospitalized are HIV positive, and hence nurses are in more regular and prolonged contact with people suffering from HIV/AIDS than is the case in other working environments. Although studies focusing on nurses’ experiences of caring for patients with HIV/AIDS have been done in numerous countries, little is known about nurses’ views in Africa, and South Africa in particular. To ensure quality care for patients with HIV/AIDS, it is important to understand nurses’ experiences of nursing HIV-positive patients and how they may influence their attitudes towards these patients.

Method.  A qualitative approach was used, the primary method of data collection being in-depth interviews. These interviews were conducted with 35 nurses at a public hospital in the Gauteng province of South Africa in 2002–2003.

Findings.  Seven themes were identified: helplessness, emotional stress and fatigue, fear, anger and frustration, occupational-related concerns, empathy, and self-fulfilment.

Conclusions.  Increased understanding of the stresses and rewards experienced by these nurses can contribute to policy development in this area. It is also important to provide appropriate preregistration and continuing education and support for nurses working in this field, and to ensure that the working environment is adequate in terms of resources.