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Burundi, 6 December 2011: Preventing the mother-to-child transmission of HIV

© Pawel Krzysiek
Early HIV testing is the best way for pregnant women to prevent HIV-positive mothers to pass the virus to their child

By Christina Corbett

Burundi, 06 December 2011 - Suzanne Ingarukuhda is proud of her healthy baby boy – and for good reason. Both 28-year-old Suzanne and her husband, 52-year-old Salvatore Ngendabanka are HIV-positive, but their son, six-month-old Emmanuel Iradukuna is HIV-negative.

“I came to see the doctor here when I was four months pregnant and they told me about HIV,” says Suzanne. “So I decided to take the test, and I found out that I was HIV-positive. My husband was angry. He decided to get tested too and we found out that we are both HIV-positive.

“When I was six months pregnant I started to take medication to stop me passing on the disease to my baby. I still take it twice a day, at 7 o’clock in the morning and at 7 o’clock in the evening. It’s easy – and I have never forgotten.”

With a reported HIV/AIDS prevalence of 3.3 percent among adults, Burundi is home to an estimated 28,000 children living with HIV/AIDS. Among women there are around 380,000 pregnancies every year, and an estimated 7,800 pregnant women are expected to be HIV-positive. This means that they can unknowingly infect their babies if nothing is done to reduce transmission.

Today however, treatment to prevent HIV-positive mothers from passing on the infection to their babies is increasingly available in Burundi.

Known as PMTCT (prevention of mother to child transmission), it can reduce the risk of transmission to two percent or less.

Here at the UNICEF-supported health centre in Kirwena, Bururi province, around 110 women a month come for prenatal consultations in the first three months of pregnancy. Like Suzanne, 95 percent of these women get tested for HIV.

The health centre is run by local non-governmental organisation, Caritas and nurse Sakina Ndihokubwayo explains: “For PMTCT treatment to be most effective women need to get tested as early as possible.

Community health workers based in the villages encourage them to come for prenatal consultations in the first three months of pregnancy, and more and more women are coming voluntarily.”

Across Burundi, UNICEF is working to strengthen PMTCT services through supporting partner organisations Caritas and the Burundi Association for Family Heath (ABUBEF).

Since 2008 UNICEF has been providing financial support and training to help build capacity of staff and improve access to services.

Getting the men on-board

Challenges remain however, and one major problem is getting men to come for HIV-testing and involve themselves in the PMTCT process.

“Many women get tested but don’t come back for the results because they are worried about what their husband will say, and many want to be tested but wait to get their husband’s permission,” says Dr Adronis Nigukuri, head of the maternity unit at the hospital in the town of Makamba.

This makes men key participants in tackling HIV, greatly reducing the risk of discrimination and stigmatisation.

Pascal is head of a network of HIV-positive people in Makamba, and an active promoter of testing among men. “Slowly it is becoming more common for men to come to prenatal consultations with their wives,” says Pascal.

“This means that more men are getting tested, and if they are HIV-positive they are involved in the PMTCT process from the beginning.”

For Sharif Uwimana, a member of the Makamba network, making the decision to get tested was hard.

“My wife came first and insisted that I come, but it wasn’t easy. We both found out that we are HIV-positive, which was very difficult. But we received counselling and that helped, and life goes on. Our last child was born HIV negative, thanks to PMTCT treatment.”

© Christina Corbett
Suzanne Ingarukuhda with her husband Salvatore Ngendabanka and six-month-old Emmanuel Iradukuna. Both Suzanne and Salvatore are HIV-positive, but treatment to prevent the mother to child transmission of the virus has ensured that Emmanuel is HIV-negative

Spreading the word

In the Caritas-run health centre in Banga, Kyanza province, 25-year-old Virginie Kitegetse explains why she is now an advocate for HIV-testing and PMTCT treatment. Both Virginie and her husband knew they were HIV-positive before having their second child. Yet despite this, the couple chose to go ahead with the pregnancy.

“I knew that there was a way to have a child that didn’t have HIV, and as my first child is HIV-positive, I wanted to make sure that this one wasn’t,” says Virginie.

“I had to put my trust in the medicine, but when I saw the difference it could make I decided to tell others about it.”

Today, 11-month-old Toni Tuyishime has been tested for HIV twice, with negative results. “Everyone knows we are HIV-positive,” says Virginie, “so people come to see how healthily our child is growing.”

 

 
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