I can’t believe that I had my first daughter 10-1/2 years ago. It feels like yesterday, and for some reason, the images are more vivid than when I had my second child a few years later.
It was an induced pregnancy, so we went in to the hospital rather leisurely on a week night. I laid on a table and was given medication to send my soon-to-be child a signal that it was time to come into the world. After nine months of carrying her around in my belly and readying the house and my life to include a new child, my husband and I were more than ready to welcome her into our lives.
Once the contractions started, the experience went from easy to difficult. Those pains were serious and I felt like I had been transported into another universe. But we had a great doctor and great team, and all went according to plan. Olivia was born at 9am the next morning, and a new light came into my life.
However, she wasn’t brought over to me right away. She was having trouble breathing upon entrance and was instead whisked away by the doctors. For a few brief moments, we were afraid that something was wrong. But like with most babies in the U.S., she was okay and returned to me.
I’m reminded of this story, and how fortunate I was to give birth in a resource-rich country, as world leaders prepare to meet at the United Nations General Assembly to review the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals in New York City this coming Wednesday. Putting the most excluded, most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach children first will accelerate progress towards achieving the global targets by 2015, says UNICEF.
The Millennium Development Goals– the most successful global anti-poverty push in history- have so far achieved substantial results for children around the world since their adoption in 2000 and have helped set global and national priorities.
Thanks to global and national efforts, under-five child mortality has almost been halved between 1990 and 2012. Fewer people live in poverty, fewer women die in childbirth and 2.1 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water between 1990 and 2011.
Yet, around 6.6 million children younger than five died in 2012, mostly of preventable causes. That is 18,000 deaths per day. In fact, if current trends continue, MDG 4 (reducing child mortality) will not be met until 2028 and as many as 35 million more children will die between 2015 and 2028.
In an effort to sustain the push towards ending preventable child deaths, the UNICEF supported global movement- ‘Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed’ – continues to mobilize political commitment and civil society partners and to turn promise into action on the ground to stop children from dying of causes that are readily preventable. Among the other Millennium Development goals are to improve maternal health and combat AIDS, two of my own priorities.
If you read my blog often, you know that I work with mothers2mothers (m2m), founded in 2001 in Cape Town, South Africa, and guided by the simple but powerful premise that mothers are the key to ending pediatric AIDS and sustaining the long-term health of women and children in communities burdened by HIV. They offer Mentor Mothers that employ and train mothers living with HIV. According to m2m, approximately 800 children worldwide are newly infected with HIV each day; more than 90% of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly all of these children acquire HIV from their mothers during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding and approximately half of them will die before the age of two if their HIV infection goes untreated. Furthermore, AIDS is a leading cause of maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in too many children losing their mothers in their early years when they need them most.
m2m is working to hard to advance four of the eight MDGs that most directly impact women’s and children’s health — #4 reducing child mortality, $5 improving maternal health, #6 combating HIV/AIDS, and #3 promoting gender equity and empowering women. The organization employs and trains Mentor Mothers, who are mothers living with HIV. In turn, these women provide essential health education and peer support to HIV-positive pregnant women and new mothers to help them access effective and inexpensive medical interventions to prevent the transmission of HIV to their babies and keep themselves alive. Since its inception, m2m has helped more than one million women in nine sub-Saharan countries, and has inspired and supported the establishment of Mentor Mother programs in two additional countries.
Mbali is a 26-year-old mother from Manzini, Swaziland and I am happy to share her story here. Please read it until the end:
After I completed my high school education, I began to lose weight. I didn’t know what could be wrong with me so I went to RFM Hospital near my home in Manzini. The nurses there gave me two pieces of news that changed my life forever. I was pregnant AND I was HIV positive. I couldn’t believe it and I was sent to talk to the Mentor Mothers at mothers2mothers. They tried to give me support and encouragement, but I couldn’t hear them.
I was shocked and angry. There was no way I was going back to RFM or to any hospital. When I got home, I told my younger sister what happened and she reassured me that it could not possibly be true. When my mother got home from work that evening, I disclosed to her and she also said that the nurses had made a mistake. Everyone in my family was in denial so it made it easier for me to ignore it. I didn’t do anything for awhile, but then I started to wonder if the nurses are wrong, then why am I losing weight. I knew that HIV makes people lose weight and that’s when I decided to go to the KS2 Clinic for another HIV test. The results were the same. I was HIV positive.
I was filled with rage and decided to confront my boyfriend. Much to my surprise, he accepted the situation and urged me to go to RFM again for a thorough medical check-up. This made me angrier because as far as I was concerned, he was to blame for all of my troubles. The thought of being HIV positive at a very young age was unbearable. I had a fear of being stigmatized since in my community we associated HIV with unbecoming sexual behaviors. I also couldn’t imagine what it would like to have a baby infected with HIV. I thought of having an abortion because I knew I could do that in South Africa. I also thought of committing suicide because I was going to die anyway and that way I wouldn’t subject myself to all the pain and stigma of having AIDS.
Fortunately, on my second visit to RFM, I came into contact with the Mentor Mother again. I was so surprised when the Mentor Mother told me she was also HIV positive, that I could protect my baby from HIV, and that I could stay alive and see my baby grow. I still didn’t believe any of it and thought it was better to kill myself or to get an abortion and die alone. But the Mentor Mother wouldn’t give up on me. She kept on encouraging me and I finally agreed to take a CD4 test. My CD4 count was 97, extremely low, and I was told I needed to start anti-retrovirals (ARVs) immediately. It was all happening so fast and I was scared of beginning treatment. But the Mentor Mothers continued to support me and tell me that everything was going to be OK. I desperately wanted to believe her.
My baby is 3 years old today. He is HIV negative, thanks to the support I was given by mothers2mothers. And, can you believe it? After such a beginning, I am now working as a Mentor Mother too! My mission is to help other young women who find themselves in similar situations. There are still so many of us.
I am so grateful to the Mentor Mothers at m2m for not taking “no” for an answer and helping me save my baby. I feel blessed to have the opportunity now to be an ambassador for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV through my work as a Mentor Mother.
Disclosure: I am a M2M ambassador and lead up an effort for the organization to help get word out about what they do.