|© UNICEF Rwanda/2005/Lewnes|
|Jeanette, a young mother who tested positive for HIV two years ago, looks out a window at the Kicukiro Health Centre in Kigali. She has received medical and psychological support from the centre's Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme.|
By Alexia Lewnes
KIGALI, Rwanda, 6 March 2006 – Jeanette tested positive for HIV two years ago when she was pregnant with her youngest child. “When I was told the news, I didn’t cry or shout,” she said. “But I was afraid. The nurse explained things to me, but I thought I was going to die. I knew someone who had died from AIDS, but I thought this could never happen to me.”
Jeanette had been tested at the Kicukiro Health Centre in Kigali and immediately enrolled at the centre’s Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme.
Caring for HIV-infected mothers and their families
Over the next six months Jeanette received psychological counselling and education on infant feeding, maternal health and safe delivery practices. She was given antiretroviral drugs as well as supplementary food to support her nutritional status during her pregnancy.
It is estimated that about eight per cent of women attending antenatal clinics in Rwanda are HIV-positive and approximately 23,000 children are born to these mothers annually.
Providing mothers with antiretroviral prophylaxis, safe delivery practices, infant feeding counselling and support can reduce the risk of maternal-to-child transmission by fifty per cent or more.
That’s why UNICEF has been supporting the health centre’s Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission programme. The initiative is part of a coordinated effort by UNICEF, the government, NGOs as well as other UN agencies and groups to reduce the number of new infant infections.
Two campaigns in Rwanda have highlighted the need to address children as an integral part of the AIDS response: the ‘UNITE FOR CHILDREN UNITE AGAINST AIDS’ campaign and the ‘Treat every child as your own’ campaign led by the Organization of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS. Both provide new opportunities for innovative actions for children.
The ‘Family Package’ programme
Each month an average of 120 pregnant women like Jeanette come to the Kicukiro Health Centre. The bundle of services they receive are known as the Family Package programme, a joint initiative of the Office of the First Lady of Rwanda and the Minister of Health.
Jeanette also received counselling on how to share the results with her husband. However, when she told him she had tested positive for HIV and asked him to get a test himself, he refused. “He left to go live with another woman,” said Jeanette. “But then the other woman got sick, and he came back.”
Jeanette delivered her baby at the health centre. When Jeanette’s boy was tested 18 months later there were no signs of HIV. But not all of Jeanette’s children are as fortunate. Of her five children, one of them, her 6-year-old boy, tested positive for the virus. When Jeanette now goes to the health centre for her medication, she brings her son along with her.
Living with HIV/AIDS
Telling a child he or she is HIV positive is something that even physicians and nurses still find difficult. For Jeanette, it seems next to impossible and she wrestles with how she will one day tell her son.
“When we come to the clinic to check his blood and get his medicine, I tell him that the medicine is for a skin infection in his scalp and that the medicine will improve his appetite and make him strong. I can’t tell him the truth. I don’t know how to counsel him. He’s the only child who has it in the family. How will he understand that he is the only one?”
For Jeanette, the hardest part about living with HIV is the isolation. “I have information and medicine, but when I’m in the community, I don’t feel confident in myself. I feel ashamed and don’t accept myself as a human being among others because I am infected. I have told only my mother, but the community knows. Some accept me, but others don’t.”
Sabine Dolan contributed to this report from New York.