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Mothers helping win the war against HIV by taking proper care to prevent mother-to-child transmission

Health & Science
 To reduce the risks of transmitting HIV to newborns, pregnant mothers are encouraged to suppress their viral load. [iStockphoto]

When Beatrice* got married, she was overwhelmed by joy. She dreamt of the day she and her husband would hold their bundle of joy.

When she was three months pregnant, she went for her routine check-up. At the clinic, the doctor requested to have a chat with her privately in a different room. When she stepped into the room, she was welcomed by a nurse and someone else.

This had never happened before so she sensed something was amiss. 

She sat in one corner anxiously waiting to hear what the two wanted to say. This being her first pregnancy, all manner of thoughts raced through her mind. 

The other person in the room, a man, introduced himself as a counsellor. After the brief introduction, he asked Beatrice if she had ever considered taking an HIV test. 

He later told her she had contracted HIV. Her world turned upside down instantly.

“I was shocked and angry at the same time. I suspected my husband of being unfaithful. The news broke my heart into pieces. I felt like I had let my child down,” recalls Beatrice.

At the clinic, she was taken through counselling, and educated about HIV, treatment, and how to prevent transmitting it to the unborn baby.

Sadly, the baby was infected and succumbed to AIDs after the first birthday.

Beatrice would further conceive her second and third children, who all died of AIDS on their first and fifth birthdays respectively.

“The deaths of my three children made me lose hope of ever becoming a mother,” recalls Beatrice.

Happy mother

Today, she’s a happy mother raising two HIV-negative children aged two and 10, thanks to HIV treatment.

“Seeing my children happily play in the house gives me solace. I never imagined I would see such a day in my life,’ she says.

Her neighbour was not as lucky. She buried her two-year-old children in 2013 and 2015 after they died of AIDS.

The woman attributes the deaths to failure to adhere to medication, before conceiving and during breastfeeding. 

The two women are among hundreds of HIV-positive mothers in Siaya County, happily raising negative children, thanks to adherence to treatment that has improved the health of mothers and babies.

For many years, the HIV burden swept children born of positive mothers in Siaya County. The hope of raising a future generation was left in the balance. Siaya is the first county in Kenya to attain the World Health Organisation (WHO) targets of below five per cent mother-child transmission

Mother-child prevalence in the county stands at 4.3 per cent, against 8.6 per cent nationally, according to data by NSDCC and NASCOP.

Steve Kathaka, regional NSDCC HIV coordinator working in Kisumu and Siaya counties attributes low mother-child transmission to heightened sensitisation of HIV at the household and community level by community health promoters.

“Community health promoters walk door to door registering all HIV positive pregnant mothers whom they ensure enrol to ANC for care. We are proud that their dedication has significantly reduced infections in babies,” says Kathaka.

The county has a total of 2,128 community health promoters established in 2014, who document pregnant women who are HIV positive and enrol them in ANC clinics.

The community health promoters have also identified mentors (individuals living with HIV, but have given birth to HIV-negative children), who reach out to other mothers, encouraging them on the importance of adhering to treatment and exclusive breastfeeding.

Mothers are also encouraged to deliver in hospitals with the assistance of a trained health provider to prevent the risks of transmitting the virus to newborns.

Rose Akoth, a community health promoter in Alego Usonga Sub County, maps pregnant mothers and links them to ANC care, where they are put on HIV care to protect the unborn child from contracting the virus.

“I am overwhelmed by joy, seeing families raise HIV-positive babies. The HIV/AIDS pandemic left families devastated, with deemed hope of having a future generation

It pained to watch babies die at birth, and those who survived barely attained the age of five years,” recalls Akoth. She adds, “I never imagined we could have a generation. Seeing positive mothers deliver healthy, HIV-negative babies is my joy”.

To reduce risks of transmitting HIV to newborns, pregnant mothers are encouraged to suppress their viral load, and at birth, newborns are given prophylaxis, and put on zidovudine, neverapine, drugs that prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child.

Newborns are also tested immediately after birth, at six weeks, six months, and at 12 and 18 months.

If at 18 months the baby tests negative, they do not use ARVs, but if infected, they are started on a lifelong journey of using ARVs and septrin daily.

Kenya’s plan to end Aids in Children by 2027 is pegged on four pillar frameworks namely protecting adolescents and women of childbearing years from acquiring HIV, planning pregnancies for the HIV infected woman, caring for the pregnant/ breastfeeding HIV-infected woman and her baby, and care of her family.

According to Nacsop a child who has acquired HIV, without the appropriate care and treatment, about a third of them die by their first birthday, 50 percent by the age of two and 80 per cent by five years.

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