Women Unite to End Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV

Published on Friday 27th May 2011

In Africa, thousands of children are infected with HIV by their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, labor, delivery or breastfeeding. It’s called mother-to-child transmission [MTCT].
But the process can be prevented, said Robin Smalley of the South Africa-based organization Mothers to Mothers. She said developed countries have shown it is possible.
But she said there is a “huge inequity that there are fewer [HIV-positive] babies born in USA and Europe combined in a year than in a single African clinic.” Coverage levels are very low in most poor countries.
“We have the medicines easily and inexpensively available to prevent the transmission” she said, “and yet we still have one baby every minute being born positive.” Her organization has now expanded its services to cover countries in East and Southern Africa.
Mothers to Mothers was started after a visit to hospitals in South Africa by Dr. Mitch Baser, an obstetrician from Harvard University in the northern U.S. city of Boston. Smalley said Baser, who later co-founded Mothers to Mothers, was shocked by the lack of care for women who had come to seek help with their pregnancies.
“He was seeing this gap in services,” she said, “that was created because there are so few doctors and nurses running everything and they are stressed and overworked and overwhelmed….”
If the mothers don’t receive adequate attention during and after childbirth, many pass on the infection to their babies.
Mothers to Mothers has been training young women like Nozi Samela, a teenage high school dropout who learned she was HIV positive when she went for her first pre-natal visit.
“We realized that the biggest resources we have are the mothers themselves,” said Smalley. The idea of training HIV-positive mothers and assigning them to prenatal units as “mentor mothers” has been effective, she added. They play an important advisory role giving guidance to other young mothers who have been diagnosed with the HIV virus.
“When a young woman comes in and gets this devastating news,” she said, “immediately a mentor mother is called who can put her arms around her and hold her hand and tell her that she is not alone.”
Mothers to Mothers is working to change social and cultural factors that can lead to HIV infection or public rejection of those infected, Smalley said.
She added that many HIV-positive women are isolated from mainstream society.
Nozi had just finished high school, without prospects for college. She contracted the virus from a much older boyfriend. She said after being diagnosed she feared that her life was over. “I thought I was going to die.”
In South Africa, as in many sub-Saharan countries, there are few jobs available to HIV-positive mothers and few or no social services to help them.
But she and many others have been hired as paid mentor mothers. Nozi is now in a job that allows her to help others while fighting stigma in her community.



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