Aletta is 27. She is a housewife, living in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her partner. When she became pregnant with their child, she was excited and full of hope at the extension of their family. But during a routine prenatal check-up, she learned that she is also HIV-positive.
It is a common scenario — 1.5 million women every year around the world learn, many times in the same minute, that they are pregnant and HIV positive. Like so many other newly-diagnosed HIV-positive pregnant women, Aletta must now rise to face the challenge of accepting this news. She must overcome the stigma and discrimination associated with an HIV-positive diagnosis, and commit to keeping herself healthy for her unborn baby.
She also needs to take steps to prevent her baby from being born HIV-positive. It’s entirely possible to have an HIV-free infant, however, Aletta will need to take her antiretroviral medicines, and make sure she delivers her baby in a safe, hygienic environment. She must also learn how to make the right feeding options to ensure her baby is not exposed to HIV.
In South Africa, fourteen years after the start of a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) program in 2002, the mother-to-child HIV transmission (MTCT) rate has reduced from between 15-45% to 2.7% at six weeks after birth, saving thousands of lives as, 50% of child and infant deaths in South Africa are related to HIV infection.
Giving birth to an HIV-free child is only part of the journey. Unfortunately, many women drop out of treatment as soon their babies test HIV negative at six weeks. Often, they do not realize that their infants aren’t fully out of the woods and could still contract HIV if breastfed by an HIV-positive mother who isn’t adhering to treatment.
Recognizing that newly diagnosed mothers need support on their journey to keep their babies healthy, HIVSA is working with health care clinics in Johannesburg, South Africa to provide women with a greater understanding of all relevant issues pertaining to HIV. And whenclinics have a counselor who has been trained in Integrated Access to Care and Treatment (IACT), there is hope.
IACT is a program that is being delivered by HIVSA (in collaboration with the Department of Health and community partners), in Johannesburg, South Africa. IACT is a comprehensive information and support process that is shared and discussed in an intimate support group setting of up to 15 people, who commit to staying together as a group until the six sessions of IACT are completed.
The goal of IACT is to empower people living with HIV with the information they need to get the care they need, when they need it, without fear of discrimination.In the words of Vuyo, a support group participant, “I was afraid of telling my husband and my mother-in-law. I feared they would say that I brought this disease into the family. My newfound friends in the IACT support group went with me to talk to my mother-in-law when I broke the news and she in turn helped me talk to my husband.” Vuyo’s husband was afraid of how this would affect the baby, and the group helped him understand that, with treatment, the baby could be born healthy.
HIVSA, with support from Johnson & Johnson, trains community-based caregivers to provide IACT. In small, intimate support-group settings, caregivers share IACT information and help HIV-positive mothers understand that HIV doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and that with the right interventions, their babies can stay HIV-free.