Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs

CONGO: Fear, Stigma Undermine Fight Against Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission

Arsène Séverin

BRAZZAVILLE, Jan 8 2008 (IPS) - At the Integrated Health Centre of Bissita, located in the Bacongo area of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, pregnant women seated on a long bench wait to have prenatal examinations.

A member of this talkative group, Sylvie Bakani*, wears a concerned expression. Due to deliver in a few weeks, she is also HIV positive.

“The doctor wanted her to take the test when she arrived for the first time at the centre, three months pregnant. When the test was positive, her husband threw her out, accusing her of being a prostitute. With time, she regained her courage, and (now) comes daily to be weighed,” Eugénie Mbondji, Sylvie’s mother, explained to IPS.

This situation encapsulates the problems facing those who are trying to encourage pregnant women in Congo to get tested for HIV, to prevent them from passing the virus on to their babies.

“Despite sensitisation campaigns, less than 60 percent agree to be tested during prenatal consultations,” says Jean Angouono Moke, who oversees efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission in Congo. “The women are threatened by their husbands in cases where they get tested and the tests are positive…They are scared.” Some also fear stigmatisation by the community.

Notes Mélanie Mbioka, a young teacher in Brazzaville: “I am five months pregnant, but I do not want to get tested. I prefer that this (HIV status) is revealed later, during the birth. I could not bear being pregnant and HIV positive. And, my husband and his relatives will never allow it.”

Moke accepts that eradicating all mother-to-child transmission poses huge challenges. “But we want to reduce the rate of transmission, that is still at 6.2 percent here.”

He says that about 400 HIV positive pregnant women were received in 2006 in the country’s integrated health centres, mostly in Brazzaville and Pointe- Noire, a port city and Congo’s economic capital. Almost 100 doctors and more than 200 midwives have been trained to care for pregnant women who have contracted the HI virus.

The Centre for Mobile Treatment in Brazzaville started a service dealing with mother-to-child transmission last year because of the large number of such cases. In addition, it has begun work on constructing a building to house maternity services for pregnant, HIV positive women, with financing from the French Red Cross.

Jeannine Obosso, an HIV positive mother who comes to be weighed at a hospital in Talangaï, Brazzaville, strongly recommends testing during pregnancy. “Really, I call on young, pregnant women to get tested. If they are HIV positive, the doctors will care for them right until the birth.”

However, preventing transmission can prove costly.

Since January last year, AIDS treatment has been offered free in Congo- Brazzaville. But examinations and tests for mother-to-child transmission still have to be paid for – some costing up to 60 dollars.

These amounts are beyond the reach of many in Congo, where 51 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day, according to a government study published in July last year. A 2004 World Bank study put the figure at 70 percent.

The website of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimates adult HIV prevalence in Congo at 5.3 percent.

*Certain names have been changed to protect those concerned.

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