HIV mothers support group changes lives
By Berhane Fekade and Meaza Getahun
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When Meseret Million got the news, she thought her life was over. She wept for her children and feared for her husband. He too could become ill and her precious babies would be orphaned because of a virus too controversial to name.
Meseret was 32 years old and pregnant when she learned that she was HIV-positive, a day she won’t ever forget—March 16, 2005. She was living in Addis Ababa with her husband, a long distance truck driver, and their four sons.
“At first I understood my HIV status as the end of life,’’ said Meseret, who is now 37. “I was feeling terribly sorry for my husband because I thought I had gotten the disease from him and soon I will be dead. But as time passed, I became informed on different issues of HIV/AIDS and I began thinking about saving my family.”
Her life wasn’t at an end. It was beginning in a new way.
A Mothers Support Group, sponsored by Jhpiego with support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), gave Meseret the knowledge and strength to take care of herself and her family. She learned about access to life-prolonging treatment, the need to practice safe sex and the importance of taking charge of her health.
Meseret discovered to her surprise—and relief—that there were ways to protect her unborn child from acquiring the virus. She enrolled in a prenatal clinic where Jhpiego-trained health care providers counseled her on treatment options for herself and her unborn child.
When her labor began, Meseret took a single dose of nevirapine, a medication used to help prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child. She gave birth in August 2005 to a son, Nathanael, a Biblical name that means “Gift from God,” and since his birth, he has tested negative for the virus.
Meseret was reluctant at first to join the Mothers Support Group, worried that her participation would expose her HIV status and ostracize her among family and friends.
But since participating in the group, Meseret has never regretted her decision to join with other mothers to talk about the issues confronting them.
“I knew almost nothing about HIV/AIDS before,’’ she recalled. “I got (so much) knowledge after attending an MSG program session. We have a discussion on different health issues such as basic information about HIV/AIDS, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT), vaccination and child care, antiretroviral therapy, the use of family planning, STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and many other issues.”
The Jhpiego-supported group was conceived as a complement to government-sponsored health care programs for women with HIV to ensure that they received treatment for their newborns and infants along with follow-up care.
After six and a half months in the program, Meseret was so engaged with her fellow moms that she was recruited to be a mentor. The support group was a learning experience and an opportunity to share her knowledge with others. “I took a five-day “Mother Mentors” training and I started to work as a mentor,” she said. “I was happy.”
Meseret credits her participation in the group with giving her the strength and courage to disclose her HIV secret to her husband.
“When my husband returned from his long distance driving route,’’ Meseret recalled, “I decided to inform him about my status. I was already engaged in the mentorship activity . . . but it took me two years to disclose.”
Through her work and with the help of counselors, she began using family planning and decided against a sixth pregnancy, despite her desire for a daughter. Taking charge of her health has benefited her family: “All of my children are tested for HIV and all of them are negative, including my last child I delivered,” she said.
Meseret’s husband also got tested and is now receiving treatment for HIV.
“We supported each other and we frequently discuss our health,” said Meseret. “Since I am a mother mentor, I receive a little payment for transportation from the program and I am supporting my family with that. I am so happy because I am confident enough to share my experience with other mothers. Many of them are following my example and changing their lives.”
FACTS about the Mothers Support Group, which ran from October 2007–July 2009:
- 2,966 HIV-positive women participated in similar groups that were offered at 36 health facilities in Ethiopia.
- HIV testing became more acceptable among pregnant women—26,059 new clients were registered and 90% of them (23,387) were tested for HIV and received their test results through post-test counseling. Of those tested, 1,847 (7.9%) were HIV-positive.
- At four sites with Mothers Support Groups, 343 mothers and 341 infants received antiretroviral prophylaxis and about 95% of infection was averted, with only 18 infants testing positive.
- In health facilities where the Mothers Support Group was introduced, about 300 women participated in income-generation activities and were able to help support their families.
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