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

South Africa-based group Mothers to Mothers works to reduce HIV transmission from mothers to babies

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]. A UNAIDS Global Report published in 2009 estimated that 370,000 children contracted HIV during the prenatal and breastfeeding period

But the process can be prevented--developed countries have shown it is possible says Robin Smalley of the South Africa-based organization mothers2mothers.

Smalley says that problem in Sub-Saharan Africa is that 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 babies being born every day who are HIV-positive.” M2M has now expanded its services to cover countries in East and Southern Africa.

Mothers2mothers was started by Dr. Mitch Besser, an obstetrician from Harvard University in the northern U.S. city of Boston who was working in a hospital in South Africa. Smalley said Besser, who later co-founded mothers2mothers, 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.

Mothers2mothers has been training young women like Nozi Samela, who learned she was HIV positive when she went for her first pre-natal visit. Nozi now works as a mentor mother with Mothers2Mothers and is continuing with her education.

Mothers are resources...

“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.”

Because of the social stigma related to HIV, women who test positive are isolated from mainstream society. Smalley says that Mothers2mothers is working to change some of the social and cultural factors that can lead to HIV infection or public rejection of those infected.

There are many young women who share Nozi’s story. She had just finished high school, without prospects for college, she found out that she had contracted the virus from a boyfriend. She says that after being diagnosed she feared that her life was over. “I thought I was going to die.” Now, years later, Nozi works full-time for mothers2mothers while finishing her university degree in accounting.

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 members of a medical team. Nozi is now in a job that allows her to help others while fighting stigma in her community.