Mozambique, 13 June 2011: Efforts to educate about HIV testing help pregnant mothers and children
By Shantha Bloeman
BEIRA, Mozambique, 13 June 2011 – It is another busy day at Munhava Health Care Centre, located in a crowded neighbourhood in Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city.
With a captive audience of mothers sitting lined up on long stone benches, Isabelle Domingo, a 28- year-old mother of three, starts what she hopes will be an educational conversation on early testing for HIV/AIDS.
Large strides in HIV testing
Isabella starts with a general lesson on the importance of staying healthy and protecting oneself against malaria before she starts on the more difficult subject of HIV. She herself found out she was HIV positive when she came to the health care centre during the pregnancy of her second child.
“When I tested positive, my husband blamed me for bringing the disease into the family. He refused to get tested and after a while we separated,” Isabella tells the women.
Mozambique has made large strides in helping mothers get tested for HIV. If a woman tests positive and takes the necessary medication upon diagnosis, there is a high probability that the child will be free of HIV.
In Beira – where the HIV prevalence rate is much higher than the national average of about 11 percent, and one in three pregnant women are estimated to be HIV positive – this is a pivotal step in the global efforts to eliminate new HIV infections in infants and children. In Mozambique, currently one in 10 children under the age of five will die from AIDS, almost entirely from being infected from birth.
More than 900 health facilities, nearly all of Mozambique’s primary health care centres, are now equipped for crucial testing. But the harsh reality of stigma and ignorance still prevent many women from following the programme comprehensively and many drop out due to the stress and social consequences.
Educating about HIV
Teresa Antonia Fernando, a nurse who has been working at the centre for more than three years, sees, on average, 20 pregnant women a day for antenatal services, including giving them a HIV test.
She believes many of the women are afraid and do not understand what HIV is and how it can be treated. “It is rare for a woman to refuse to be tested, but if they test positive, many will simply not come back,” she explains. “They will go to another clinic for their antenatal services, this time refusing the test.”
Isabella, who now looks after her three sons herself, is a strong woman. After her husband left her, she decided she would do everything to keep her unborn child negative and put her energy into understanding what HIV was and the physical impact it had on her and her unborn child’s health. “I knew very little about my body and the science of the virus,” she says. “I now know if you live properly you can live a long time, yet a lot of people still don’t understand and would prefer to use traditional medicine.”
She and a few other HIV positive women decided they also needed to do more to help each other. They formed Kupulumussana (‘We Will Save Each Other’), a mother support group with UNICEF backing.
It has now grown to 37 active members, who each day volunteer their services and explain to pregnant mothers what HIV is and how taking medicines is crucial. They also provide counselling for mothers during their pregnancies and until their children are 18 months old and know their final status.
The Ministry of Health, with partners like UNICEF, is now working to map existing support groups and provide more comprehensive tools and training. This will be critical as Mozambique rolls out new World Health Organization HIV guidelines, which include ensuring that an HIV exposed child remains on prophylactic treatment as long as their mother breastfeeds.
Isabella is moving forward. Her experiences have motivated her to go back to school. She combines long days at the clinic with evening studies and is in the process of finishing high school. Her dream is to continue to help people as a nurse or teacher.
More stories from Mozambique
“Towards Universal Access" on HIV/AIDS (2010)