|© UNICEF video|
|Giaum's mother Jacqueline now acts as both patient and counsellor, making bi-weekly hospital visits to advise other mothers living with HIV in Cameroon.|
By Shantha Bloemen
YAOUNDE, Cameroon, 14 January 2009 – Jacqueline sits on the tattered couch in her two-room home, where she struggles to raise two children alone. At age 32, Jacqueline is living with HIV and has lost one daughter to the virus. Her five-year-old son Giaum is also living with the virus.
“When I came back here from South Africa, my daughter was always sick with fever. I took her to the doctor and to herbalists but nothing seemed to help. Once she passed away, I also felt sick,” says Jacqueline. “I tested positive for HIV and started treatment. As soon as I felt better, it was my son who I was worried about."
After months of worrying alone about her son’s health and receiving minimal support from the local clinic, Jacqueline decided to go the UNICEF-supported Chantal Biya Foundation, which she had seen advertised on television.
“I first thought that it was the change of environment, like bad water or poor feeding. Then my husband and son both got tested. We discovered we were all positive,” she recalls.
Thankfully, Jacqueline’s younger daughter Alexis has tested negative. She was born after Jacqueline began treatment for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT).
Treatment engenders hope
It was at the Chantal Biya Foundation that Giaum was finally able to access free treatment. It was also where Jacqueline met Genevieve, the head of a UNICEF-supported advocacy group for mothers living with HIV.
The group is a network of 30 volunteers providing an emotional safety net for afflicted families and helping them to cope with the challenges of living with HIV. The volunteers started the association in 2003 with the aid of a doctor at the foundation, who realized that medical care alone could not adequately combat the high levels of discrimination and stigma that still confront patients here.
Jacqueline explained that since she lost her mother, there has been no one she can turn to to share her problems. Her husband left the country after she became pregnant with their second child.
"There is no secret I can hide from her. Genevieve is just like my sister," she says.
The volunteers make regular home visits, often taking on the roles of surrogate family members for those who find themselves abandoned.
"We give advice for overall well-being. We tell patients to be positive in life. We tell mothers how to live with HIV, how to break the news to relatives and how to overcome stigma and discrimination," said Genevieve, herself a mother of four children.
The volunteer group gives women a stronger purpose as well as a social network. Jacqueline now acts as both patient and counsellor, as she makes bi-weekly visits to the hospital to advise newly infected mothers.
With an estimated 45,000 HIV-positive children in Cameroon, there is much left to be done to expand and improve treatment, particularly in remote areas. UNICEF enables organizations such as the Chantal Biya Foundation to provide the services that women and children like Jacqueline and her family so desperately need.