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South Africa

Candid story reveals success preventing mother-to-child infection in South Africa

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1902/Berkwitz
Babalwa Mbono speaks at an event entitled 'Elimination of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV and Synergies for Achieving MDGs 4,5 and 6,’ organized by UNICEF, WHO and UNAIDS.

NEW YORK, USA, 6 October 2010 – Babalwa Mbono remembers the day in 2002 when she learned that she was living with HIV.  Ms. Mbono, who makes her home in Cape Town, South Africa, was pregnant with her second child. She had just found out that an HIV test administered at the start of her ante-natal care programme had come back positive. 

Now she was worried about the risks the virus posed to her own and her baby’s health: a woman living with HIV can transmit the virus to her infant during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding. 

Dispelling stigma

Ms. Mbono wondered how her husband, family and community would react when she shared word of her status.  People living with HIV often face stigma and discrimination, even from loved ones.

© UNICEF/2010/Huntress
Keynote speakers on stage at the UN Week Digital Media Lounge in New York. Ms. Mbono, seated third from right, spoke about her experience as a mother living with HIV.

With the help of a local UNICEF partner, however, a medical and social intervention known as ‘prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission,’ or PMTCT, helped Ms. Mbono protect the baby she carried – and, later, her third child as well. She received assistance in learning how to live with the virus and explaining her status to others. And her experience would set her on the path to becoming a guide and advocate for other pregnant women with the same diagnosis.

Last month, Ms. Mbono was able to share her experience with delegates from around the world at an event at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

“My children are from the PMTCT programme, and they are HIV-free,” she announced to applause during a keynote address at the UN Week Digital Media Lounge.  The gathering of bloggers, journalists and activists coincided with a UN meeting on the Millennium Development Goals, a set of internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide.

While in New York, Ms. Mbono also attended a joint meeting on PMTCT and the MDG’s hosted by UNICEF, the WHO and UNAIDS.

Life-saving help

Today, Ms. Mbono is triumphant. But at the time of her diagnosis, she was bewildered.  “I didn’t know what to do,” she said, as she told her story at the Digital Media Lounge. “I was thinking of all these questions with no answers.”

During her second antenatal visit, she was introduced to a PMTCT group organized by mothers2mothers, a UNICEF partner organization supporting pregnant women living with HIV and new mothers in eight African countries. Ms. Mbono knew that the mothers in the PMTCT programme were living with HIV, and she expected to see a room full of sick people. “But guess what?” she says. “I saw healthy women just like me – and big, beautiful babies.”

Mothers2mothers guided Ms. Mbono through treatment to protect her health and that of her child.  The organization gave her the information she needed to make decisions about living with HIV and protecting her baby. It helped her to disclose her status to her husband, family and community. 

In time, she grew so enthusiastic about helping pregnant women diagnosed with HIV that she became a ‘mentor mother’ with the organization, eventually moving up to her current role of junior trainer.

Too many still excluded

Many African women face the challenges confronted by Ms. Mbono. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the HIV and AIDS epidemic has hit hardest, some 4 million young people aged 15-24 were estimated to be living with HIV in 2008. Young women in sub-Saharan Africa are roughly 2-4 times more likely to be infected than young men of the same age.

But too often, HIV testing and PMTCT are simply beyond the reach of pregnant women in the developing world. In 2008, just 43 per cent of these women in eastern and southern Africa were tested for the virus. Of those living with HIV, only 58 per cent received anti-retroviral drugs to protect their babies.
Making PMTCT accessible to all who need it is crucial to achieving MDG targets 4, 5 and 6, which call respectively for reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

Ms. Mbono was fortunate to have access to a PMTCT programme. But the organization that made it possible for her to protect her babies offered her something more as well.

“Mothers2mothers gave me hope to live a long life,” she says.  “And I will live a long life.”



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