Surviving HIV: Preventing mother-to-child transmission in Burundi

Early action during pregnancy and proper follow-up care can stop HIV transmission from mother to child

By Juan Haro
A mother sits with two of her children, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
07 December 2017

Early action during pregnancy and proper follow-up care can stop HIV transmission from mother to child. Darlene is a mother in Burundi who, by taking appropriate actions, kept her children protected from the virus.

MURAMVYA, Burundi, 7 December 2017 – “I started to feel quite sick,” says 40-year-old Darlene*, describing a period in her life a few years ago. “After going to a health centre, I was referred to a hospital where I was hospitalized for several weeks. I did not know why I was weak, until they asked me to do HIV test. I was diagnosed as living with HIV,” she says.

At the time, Darlene was married to a man she did not trust. “I met him in the capital city of Bujumbura years ago. After finding out I was HIV positive in 2011, I asked him to do the test as well, but he refused,” she says. “I insisted many times, but it wasn’t until two years after my positive test that he also started not feeling well. Finally, he did the test. He was also positive.’’

Darlene is now divorced and lives with her five children in Bukeye, in central-western Burundi, where she farms to feed her family. Despite her illness and the difficulties of taking medication, she says she has a normal life. Her story is similar to many mothers in Burundi who have been unknowingly infected with HIV. 

A nurse stands in front of a hospital bed, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
Sister Severa Niyimbona has been working at the health centre for seven years. "Before there was a lot more stigma and discrimination in relation to HIV. Now, thanks to the awareness and discussions within the communities, HIV-positive people are welcomed by other families," she says.
Preventing transmission from mother to child

In Burundi, the 2016 HIV prevalence among adults aged 15 to 49 was 1.1 per cent. According to UNAIDS, in the year 2016, 2,900 people died due to the virus, and there were still 84,000 people living with HIV, of whom over 12,000 were children aged 0 to 14.

Discrimination and stigmatization, particularly among male partners and families, not using contraceptives and inappropriate breastfeeding techniques are still major challenges that UNICEF and partners are addressing. Everything starts from emphasizing the importance of protecting women from HIV.

Sister Sévera Niyimbona is in charge of a health centre run by UNICEF partner Caritas, where she has been working for the past 7 years. “Lack of knowledge and sensitization is our big adversary. Mothers don’t know that they should come to the prenatal consultation to be checked during the first three months of pregnancy,” she says. “After it can be too late.”

In 2010, the centre established a prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme to help reduce the spread of the disease. Now the centre provides drugs, counselling and psycho-social support to help mothers safeguard their children against the virus.

Interventions like the PMTCT programme have helped change the situation of HIV and AIDS in the country. Since 2010, new HIV infections have decreased by 50 per cent and AIDS-related deaths have decreased by 55 per cent.

A mother holds a child on her lap, Burundi
UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
Darlene holds her child on her lap at the local health centre. "I want a future for them with the same opportunities as everyone else,” she says.
Securing a brighter future for her children

After finding out that she was HIV-positive, Darlene realized that there was a serious possibility of passing the virus on to her baby during pregnancy. She went to the health centre in Bukeye and decided to enter in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission programme when she was pregnant with her fourth child. The UNICEF-supported programme is considered as an essential step to ensuring an AIDS-free generation in Burundi, and has already helped many mothers make sure that none of their children is born with HIV.

Not only is the programme ensuring that Darlene receives the proper medication and care to lead a healthy life, it also connects her to other HIV-positive mothers. “Mothers like me get together to share our experiences with other communities, and to move forward every day. With them and my family, I don’t feel alone,” she says.

Today Darlene is in good health. She smiles proudly while talking about her children who were protected from being infected by the virus. She recently brought her children to the health centre in Bukeye to do the test. “My last child developed a tumour and I was very scared. I thought that it was due to the virus. However, we followed all the processes of PMTCT until the last test. This was 18 months after giving birth and my child was confirmed not positive,” she says.

“Thanks to the tests and the prevention treatments in the health centre, all my children are HIV-negative and they also have a future ahead of them. I want a future for them with the same opportunities as everyone else,” she says.


*names have been changed to protect identities