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Mothers Helping Mothers Stop HIV

At the World Economic Forum on Africa, the impact of HIV/AIDS on African countries is being addressed. The forum has honored one program that helps prevent mother-to-child transmission and turns stigmatized women into role models.

Long before the current economic crisis, HIV/AIDS took its toll on African economies. The ranks of professionals, teachers and farmers were devastated. Families were shattered and millions of orphans created. Children are vulnerable, too, possibly contracting HIV from their infected mothers at birth. Something that rarely happens in richer countries anymore.

One of the organizations trying to stop mother-to-child transmission – Mothers2Mothers -- has received the Schwab Award at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town.

M2M Executive Director Gene Falk says, “Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is an enormous issue. There are about a million and a half HIV positive pregnant women in the world and one-point-three million of those women are in sub-Saharan Africa. If you don’t have any intervention, a third to 40 percent of those women will transmit the virus to their babies.”

A few doses of prevention

“One simple dose of meds (medication) can cut transmission in half. And if you can put a woman on treatment during the last month of her pregnancy, you can cut transmission rates in half again,” he says.

Mothers2Mothers was founded in 2001 in Cape Town by Dr. Mitchell Besser, Falk’s college friend.

“He started working with women who had successfully been through treatment themselves and asking them to come back into the clinic and into the waiting rooms and working with him to just talk to the women, who he was talking to about treatment,” he says.

Falk says doctors and nurses may have trouble relating to HIV positive pregnant women, or simply don’t have enough time to talk about their situation.

“Having a woman, who herself has been through this, the pregnant mother can identify with,who can speak her language, who isn’t seen as an outsider, completely changes the dynamic. So instead of women thinking I’ve got to run away from this - I’m too scared - I don’t know how to deal with it - now, they have someone, who can tell them what they’re going to go through and how they’re going to deal with it,” he says.

It’s also good for the “mentor mothers,” who do the counseling.

“Our program trains and employs the women who’ve been through the program itself to come back and talk to the mothers. So instead of the woman thinking I’m going to die, there’s someone there who says no you’re not. I’m from your town. I’m HIV positive, but I had an HIV negative baby and you can too,” he says.

The mentor mothers then become role models, whereas before they often faced stigma and discrimination.

Best of both worlds

By giving the Mothers2Mothers program the Schwab Award, Falk says the World Economic Forum recognizes its success as a socially conscious business – combining the best of the private and public sectors.

“Klaus Schwab and his wife are actually the founders of the World Economic Forum and they have a foundation, the intention of which is to promote social entrepreneurship. And what they’re trying to do is get the two sides of the way people think about how to make things better in the world and pull them together,” he says.

The Mothers2Mothers program operates at 500 locations in South Africa, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, Swaziland and Zambia. It employs about 1400 HIV positive women, who conduct about 130,000 counseling sessions each month.