Africa, Children on the Frontline, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Women's Health

HEALTH-AFRICA: Fresh Campaign Against Paediatric AIDS

Nalisha Kalideen

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 22 2009 (IPS) - Eleven years ago, Raloke Odetoyinbo had been married for two years and a month when she found out she was HIV positive.

Graça Machel: hold government to account on prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in mothers and children. Credit:  Erik Forster/CEPA

Graça Machel: hold government to account on prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in mothers and children. Credit: Erik Forster/CEPA

In that moment she thought she had lost her chance of ever having children because, she said, she believed that her child would be born HIV positive.

But she still wanted to bear children and be a mother.

"Naturally in my society it is (bearing children) that makes you, what defines your womanhood. If you cannot have children your value as a human being is completely diminished," Odetoyinbo said.

And eventually deciding to fall pregnant was not an easy choice for Odetoyinbo.

"That was something I had to struggle with. I had access to the information and realised if I worked with my doctors I did have a chance to have a baby which was not HIV-infected," she said.

She was fortunate to have access to effective antiretroviral (ARVs) medication to prevent transmission of the virus to her unborn child.

But she is aware that many women in her country and the rest of Africa are not as fortunate. Odetoyinbo, who is now the project director of Nigeria's Positive Action for Treatment Access group, says she wants other HIV-positive women to have the same chance that she had to access ARVs.

It is one of the reasons why she has joined the newly launched Campaign to End Pediatric HIV/AIDS. CEPA is a network of civil society organisations which aims to eliminate pediatric HIV/AIDS by preventing parent-to-child transmission through the access to ARVs. CEPA also aims to ensure better access to pediatric treatment and care for HIV positive children.

CEPA is a three-year campaign that will initially focus on six countries: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Nigeria. Of these six countries, Kenya has the highest number of HIV-positive children, 155,000.

Graça Machel, chair of CEPA's pan-African Leadership Council, said that sometimes one gets blinded by the huge numbers.

"It is not the numbers in my mind. It is the eyes of the children. Sometimes I have sleepless nights because I know this child is not going to live for another month," Machel recalled.

Speaking to IPS, Machel said that while children are vulnerable, they are also resilient and it is adults' responsibility to ensure that those born are not infected.

Figures show that most first world and industrialised countries have been able to reduce pediatric infection to less than two percent. But currently 90 percent of new worldwide infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Odetoyinbo said that while the Millennium Development Goal Six is to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015, CEPA plans to reduce the number of pediatric infections by 80 percent by 2012.

"The only reason why we have so many children who have HIV is because women are neglected. We need to give women access to services for treatment, for detection. You cannot give someone something you don't have. So you can't give your child HIV if you don’t have it," Odetoyinbo said.

She urged people to hold their governments accountable. She said Nigeria was an example of this. "It is possible to hold government accountable. I saw people change the way things are done… that is how we got free (HIV) treatment in Nigeria," Odetoyinbo said.

In 2005 Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo approved free ARV treatment to HIV positive Nigerians, at a time when the country had an estimated 3.5 million people living with HIV.

The World Health Organisation reported that during 2008 almost 20,000 pregnant HIV positive women in Nigeria were on antiretroviral medication. There were still 210,000 HIV positive pregnant women in need of treatment.

James Kamau from the Kenya Treatment Access Movement said that it was time that African leaders did more in combating the pandemic.

"We need to let African leaders put their money where their mouth is in terms of having 15 percent of a country's national budget set aside (for health). We cannot let them tell us they cannot afford it," Kamau said.

Machel added that there were civil society organisations across Africa that have been influential in the fight against HIV.

"On this continent they have really made a significant impact in terms of influencing parliament to enact legislation, government to put plans and systems in place to attend to various programmes."

She said monitoring of governments was needed to ensure that heads of state were really targeting the prevention of HIV/Aids and the treatment of HIV positive women and children.

"I think we need to do that kind of monitoring. It is a time not to make pledges but to start monitoring the pledges that have already been made. As civil society organisations we need to develop a capacity to really advocate. We need to have information which is factual, credible and which produces evidence," Machel said.

While she admitted that in some countries civil society organisations had to deal with lack of resources, financial and human resources, many organisations have already been effective in influencing government policy.

Dr Lydia Mungherera, an HIV positive activist and medical doctor who works with the AIDS Support Organisation in Uganda said in her country civil society plays a significant role in driving government policy.

"In our country you have civil society on every planning committee. We have been taken in as partners working with government and I think it makes a big difference. Now we know what is going on, and when things go wrong we are able to assist with a solution," Mungherera said.

The solution for Odetoyinbo was to educate herself about her choices and treatment options before she fell pregnant. And she feels she made an empowered decision with the right information.

"What mattered the most to me at the time was giving birth and you can place value judgment on that. I had this strong desire to have a baby, to make the choice going through that it could have turned out wrong," Odetoyinbo said.

She said it was only seven years after her diagnosis that she decided to become pregnant.

"I lived with HIV and I made a conscious decision. I dared to believe in science. I dared to work with my health care provider. It took them 10 minutes and 56 seconds to get the baby out. And my baby is HIV negative," Odetoyinbo said.

So while Odetoyinbo was fortunate that her baby was not born HIV positive, she is anxious about those women who do not have the medical support she had while pregnant.

"I don't know how I would have coped with my child being HIV positive. I can deal with my status but I am not sure how I would have dealt with my child.

"Can we dare say 'Enough'? Can we think of the children? Can we stop our children from getting infected?"

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