Friends Foundation: Prevention and support for mothers and children affected by HIV/AIDS
By Shantha Bloemen
PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea, 16 January 2006
The HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country is taking a growing toll on children: Around 11,000 Papua New Guinean children are currently living with HIV (source: UNICEF Papua New Guinea office). One dedicated social worker is mobilizing support to help mothers and children affected by the disease.
With assistance from UNICEF, Tessie Soi started the Friends’ Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and also to supporting mothers and children who are already living with the virus. The Friends’ Foundation enrols HIV-positive mothers – especially those who tested positive when already pregnant – in the programme for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) at Port Moresby Hospital. “The Friends’ Foundation’s main focus is to look after the mothers once they are diagnosed (HIV-positive) and to help them through delivery and then take them home,” explains Ms. Soi. “We follow up on the children through their first 18 months.” She knows well what a serious issue mother-to-child prevention is. To date she has buried 80 children who died from the virus.
In a country where stigma and discrimination related to HIV/AIDS remain high, the need to provide outreach and support services for mothers and their children is crucial. “I saw there was a need to go out into the community to bring down stigma and discrimination and do home visits after people found out their status,” says Ms. Soi.
The Friends Foundation offers help for mothers and children already living with the virus through a support group. Many of the support group participants are referred through the hospital’s paediatric ward. Among these are Lei and her two daughters, Kerry, 7, and Laho, 9. Kerry and Laho were only diagnosed as HIV-positive after they were born. They are suffering from TB, diarrhoea and other conditions.
“When I gave birth to Kerry she was feeling sick, so I brought her to the ward,” says Lei. “That was in 1999. The doctors tested her blood and said she was positive so they tested mine and I was positive too. “We stayed in the ward for two months and after that we were discharged. But she was still feeling sick so we came back in June and then we stayed until January and we were discharged again. But she was still sick so we are always back in the hospital.”
But with limited resources and only five social workers, the hospital was not able to provide the outreach services necessitated by the growing number of people with AIDS-related illness. The Friends’ Foundation has been working to fill the gap, recruiting young volunteers to follow up with mothers and children. This has been an invaluable help for Lei, who also has two older daughters to raise. She now depends on the assistance from the volunteers and the friendship she gets from the support group. They provide her with the food, counselling and care that she and her children need to cope. “Coming to the Friends’ Foundation has helped me to know I have friends who are like me and that I am not alone in this world,” says Lei.
Efforts are under way to prevent more children getting infected at birth from HIV, by scaling up services for PMTCT at hospitals around the country. It is hoped that the model of care and support established by Tessie and the Friends Foundation can be replicated elsewhere as well. At present there is very limited availability of anti-retroviral treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea. This means that very few children are getting treatment. In addition to the work on scaling up PMTCT, increasing access to paediatric treatment is an urgent priority for UNICEF and its partners.