Saving children by preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV
Medical support, counselling and awareness campaigns are bringing together women affected with HIV and helping them start their lives afresh.
Cheerful banter fills the sturdy white tent erected on the large, barren premises of the Wau Teaching Hospital. Inside the tent, over two dozen women are sprawled on a green carpet with watchful eyes while their children play next to them. As they chat and laugh, their hands move deftly over colourful strings of pearls quickly taking shape into small, bright handbags.
Each of these women has been diagnosed with HIV – some years ago, others since only a few weeks. Unaware of their condition or its consequences, some have passed on the virus to their children while in the womb. Even as they talk easily and help each other with the weaving, these women with little or no familial support are providing each other emotional resilience to rebuild their lives one day at a time.
The lives of women and children have been hard hit by the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. The high incidence of HIV/AIDS, at 2.7 per cent, is a brutal marker of their vulnerability in the face of war, poverty, famine, malnutrition and disease. “With a severe lack of food and little scope for jobs, women and teenage girls are often forced to sell their bodies to feed themselves and their children,” says Pina Paul, the state coordinator for the Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission (PMCTC) of HIV initiative in Western Bhar El Ghazal state.
“While men many abandon their wives to join armed forces or for other partners, others hide the fact that they have HIV to indulge in unprotected sex. Often, women are diagnosed with HIV when they are pregnant, during their antenatal visits to the hospital,” she added. To raise awareness on how to avoid HIV and to enable timely treatment, UNICEF and partners support awareness campaigns and screening tests for all women of child bearing age (between 15 and 49 years) at regular intervals across the country.
During a recent five-day campaign in Wau, in December 2017, 3,073 women were screened – out of whom 52 were HIV positive. All of them were under 24 years, including several teenage girls. When no outreach campaigns are held, in November for instance, 486 women were screened at the centre in Wau and 35 of them were diagnosed as HIV positive. UNICEF provides full medication and counselling to affected women and children. Through the women support groups, livelihood activities such as handicrafts are taught and their products sold in the market to fetch income for these women.
“I haven’t seen my husband for over a year now. He left when I was pregnant with my last child,” says 29-year old Jeshinta John. She married him at the age of 12 and the oldest of her four children is a boy of 11years. “When I told my husband that he had given me HIV, he said it’s not a problem and that I should just take the medicine they give me at the hospital,” she says while breastfeeding her youngest, five-month-old daughter, Silviana.
Her lips tremble as she tries to control her tears and her anger. “He knew he had the disease and still made me pregnant. He comes home every six months and stays with his other wives in Juba the rest of the time. When he’s away he never gives us money.”
She was diagnosed with HIV when she came to the hospital after repeatedly falling ill two months before her pregnancy. Jashinta has been taking drugs from the centre for a over year now and is extremely careful never to skip a dose. She also gives her daughter, who has been tested for HIV with a negative result, the prescribed medication to eliminate any risk arising from breastfeeding her.
“Doctors here explain all the dangers of HIV. I want the best for children and am very careful so they can live a healthy live,” she says. She walks an hour from her house in Jabal care to come to the centre so she can save the transport allowance given to her during the women’s support group meetings. “I have registered my children in school with that money,” she adds proudly.
Selling mangoes and groundnuts on the street she earns about 300 SSP on a good day. While she is barely able to feed her four children with the money, she is extremely grateful for the limited monthly supply of sorghum, rice, beans she receives at the centre.
Over 2000 women and children come to the centre in Wau each month to collect their drugs. Ten such PMCTC initiatives are spread across just the Western Barh el Ghazal region. Many die early painful deaths due to lack of awareness and access to medication. Women support groups play a critical role in fighting the stigma associated with HIV. “These women are a great resource in spreading awareness in their communities. They collect medicines for women who are ashamed to come here and even for children who have HIV and have lost their parents,” says Pina. All initiatives to combat HIV and ensure prevention of mother to child transmission of the disease are supported by the Global Fund.