When HIV Positive Mothers Speak: Preventing HIV in Infants

This post was originally published on the Gates Foundation’s blog, Impatient Optimists.

“After I lost Nomthunzi, my life was never the same again. I cried for a long time.” Despite the grief of losing her husband and baby, Nomthunzi, to AIDS, Florence Ngobeni-Allen pressed on and became an ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) to educate women about the importance of HIV testing and stopping the transmission of HIV to their babies.

Times have certainly changed for many who live with HIV/AIDS.  Where once being diagnosed HIV positive was a definite death sentence, particularly in the developing world, many people can now live and thrive with HIV/AIDS, including babies.

Nine-hundred babies are born with HIV each day, according to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). In a recent online discussion with the foundation, bloggers were told that without treatment 50 percent of these babies will die before their second birthday. Today, around the world, 34.2 million people are estimated to be HIV positive and 3.4 million of them are children.

Two of the foundation’s ambassadors, Florence Ngobeni-Allen and Martha Cameron, are HIV-positive. They are also mothers who spread awareness to other mothers about mother-to-child transmission of the virus (passing the virus from the pregnant mother to her baby, in utero).

They stress to mothers globally that even though they may be HIV-positive their babies don’t need to be born with the HIV virus. In fact, 100 percent of all mother-to-child transmission of HIV is preventable. During the discussion both Ngobeni-Allen and Cameron repeated that the first step in decreasing the rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is through testing. When a woman knows her status she can prevent her baby from being born with HIV.

Martha Cameron grew up in Zambia and watched as countless members of her family passed away from AIDS, including her mother when Cameron was only 23-years-old. After severe bouts of illness both in the United States and Africa, Cameron tested positive for HIV in 2003. Despite her status, Cameron got married in 2007 and shortly thereafter she and her husband decided to have children.

“For African women it is such a big deal,” said Cameron. “It’s dignity for a woman to have children.” Through education from her doctors and prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV Cameron has delivered two HIV-negative babies and her husband continues to be HIV-negative as well.

Florence Ngobeni-Allen’s story is different because she lost her husband and her baby daughter, Nomthunzi, to AIDS in South Africa in 1996 and 1997 respectively.

In those days there were “no antiretroviral medicines available for children at that time in South Africa,” Ngobeni-Allen wrote in her personal story. Now, Ngobeni-Allen is a wife and mother of a HIV-negative son and husband.

Today there is no reason for babies to be born HIV-positive. Through early testing, education, and prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV every baby can be born HIV-free.

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