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Across Cameroon, support to pregnant women lifts stigma and prevents mother-to-child transmission of HIV

© UNICEF Cameroon/2007/Pudlowski
Free HIV testing of expectant mothers can save the life of their child and give them access to ARV treatment.

Mbalmayo, Cameroon, 12 October 2010 - In the large white room of Sainte Rosaire Catholic Health Center, a group of mothers sit in the circle discussing a range of topics. Once in a while a smile breaks out across their faces, but at other times the group is silent and serious as they listen to each other talk.

This is a scene played out each week in Mbalmayo, and in approximately 50 other support groups across Cameroon, as mothers living with HIV meet to share their experiences, provide support and encouragement to each other, and work with UNICEF to promote Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV treatment (PMTCT).

Promoting early testing and treatment
In Cameroon, PMTCT services which protect pregnant women living with HIV from passing the virus on to their children are free but many mothers don’t access them. Either women don’t get tested for HIV during pregnancy or don’t go for follow up consultations because they are too scared or too ashamed of the consequences, often they lack correct information about PMTCT and so do not undertake treatment. In response, UNICEF has supported the development of support groups for HIV positive pregnant mothers.

“In 2007 during a prenatal health visit the health worker asked me to get tested (for HIV) but I refused. The second time I said no again. The third time they told me that it was necessary to get checked for my baby.” Says Marie Louise, a member of the Sainte Rosaire Support Group, 32 year old mother of 2 children.

“When they told me that I was HIV positive I was terrified, I ran away. I cried and cried, but the health worker told me it was not the end, they told me that they could protect my unborn child through (PMTCT) medical treatment. I now have a child who is HIV negative. I was really proud, it gave me the force to fight for my children lives, and if he’s alive I have hope in life”. “Pregnant women like us can save our babies as here we can get here the treatment we need for free. Without these medicaments we would die”.

Supports groups to lift the stigma      
Support groups play an important role in helping many young mothers come to terms with their status. They also encourage mothers to take up PMTCT treatment for the benefit of their children, to regularly take Anti Retro Viral (ARV) treatment and to adhere to the treatment regimes. They also play a key role in promoting PMTCT to the wider community, addressing a lack of awareness and information prevalent in many areas.

“In this support group we feel strong and alive.  If you have HIV you don’t want to be alone, abandoned and on your own. The ARV medication alone would not be enough” says Claire, a mother of two children who are both HIV negative. “You need someone like you, who understands how you feel. We feel so comfortable together that you cannot even tell that we are positive” and they all laugh at this statement.

Catherine, a member of the nearby Saint Luc support group, and mother of four* adds “I knew about this support group even before falling pregnant. This group has given me a lot, both moral support and physical support, giving me milk and water for my baby. Thanks to this group I have accepted my situation, but I also know that I can have a baby free from HIV, even though I am HIV positive.”

Support groups such as the one at Sainte Rosaire are making a real difference by increasing the number of women taking up PMTCT services, but challenges still exist.
More and more women are joining the program, and a good result for us is when women tell us that they are satisfied and their babies are HIV negative.

Involving men
But we still have challenges in getting husband to get tested and in convincing some women to join the support group” says Dr Mache Pentoue, District Health Chief, Mbalmayo. “The message we want to give is that every woman should join this program and that ARVs are free “
PMTCT is one of the four key strategies that UNICEF and partners are taking in response to HIV and AIDS in Cameroon. It includes providing pediatric treatment, PMTCT, preventing infection among young people and protecting and supporting children affected by AIDS.

By Barbara Asin
 *names have been changed to protect identity



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