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"Two Pills - And Then What? Diary of an Activist" by Stella Greenway

 

23 June 2001

So what is HIV? It is a tiny virus that nibbles away at the immune system, and when that is weakened enough, full-blown AIDS sets in. As there is not much left of the immune system to fight back, every opportunistic disease is free to move in and most do. TB, ulcers, stomach disorders, appalling diarrhea, bedsores, malnutrition and depression are rife. There is no ability to fight back. There is no known cure and the virus mutates rapidly making research for a cure more difficult.

"Gleam of Hope" by Laurenceau

It is mainly passed on by sexual contact so that the condom or a limiting of sexual partners should be suitable intervention against the spread of the disease. But somehow not in Africa, where women have virtually no say in sexual activities and men despise the condom and may have, literally, a hundred different partners in a year. There is not much celibacy around despite the awareness campaigns.

And the children who are left? Grandmothers, with their own children dead, look after the grandchildren, but many are old, and without means. Some of the children may have HIV, all need to go to school, need food, clothes and care. Many households are headed by teenagers. Some not headed at all with children living by their wits.

This is not a one-off situation - it is an on going, slow-motion nightmare without a visible end.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

22 July 2001

Spent some hours this week with two women who are very involved in women's affairs and in the battle against AIDS. NEITHER KNEW THAT TRANSMISSION OF AIDS from infected mothers to unborn babes could be prevented by use of anti-retroviral drugs (ARD'S). If THEY don't know, you can imagine the information level at grassroots. Starting yesterday, they will be building up the awareness in the women's clubs of which they are a leading part. They were horrified that they didn't know and delighted that they would be able to do something about it - they currently advise pregnant women with AIDS that they must not breastfeed, as this can infect those who escaped HIV at birth, but now they would have this wonderful information to give. Besides the clubs, they will be seeing the clinics, traditional birth helpers, government health personnel - it may take months before the pressure of awareness takes real effect, but this particular project has started on its way. I think it is worth really doing something, even if it was only one babe involved - but 30,000 in Zimbabwe alone!

We need some help to find out about the provision of AIDS testing - and real availability of the ARD's, from whom, at what cost, whether it is going to be readily available, how it is provided etc - and is there any hope of a worldwide campaign of which we in Zim could be part?

Someone asked numbers involved - roughly 90,000 pregnant women in Zimbabwe are HIV+ and one-third of their babes will contract the virus from their mothers UNLESS transmission is prevented. That means over thirty thousand babies a year born with a death sentence of AIDS that could be prevented in Zimbabwe alone. Why do only a third contract it? It seems that the baby contracts the virus in the birth canal so a Caesar should do the trick - but for 90,000 women in the outback?

So we are starting to create awareness in one little corner of Zimbabwe and will then move on ----

* * * * * * * * * * * *

14 February 2002

It seemed so simple; two pills--a problem solved and a newborn baby saved from a miserable death. Who wouldn't feel a sense of excitement, when this simple intervention could help some 30,000 yet unborn children a year, in this small African country - some 10% of total births.

MTCT - Mother-To-Child Transmission of HIV - really does work. A simple pill given to an HIV mother in labor and a pill to her newborn baby will prevent transmission of the virus from an HIV+ mother to the baby. An anti-retroviral drug - a pill that could spell life for otherwise condemned babes to be born to HIV+ mothers.

But, explained various hardworking medical people involved in research and people-to-people grass roots clinics, it isn't as simple as that. It never is, is it?

"Why?"

It seems that the ARD's have to be administered to mother and child by trained medical personnel and in controlled conditions. This is a problem in a country where the medical service is collapsing.

"Why" - thinking of the 30,000 unborn babies condemned to struggle for breath, as their tiny immune systems collapse under attack of the virus and their little bodies shrink to a skeleton.

"Because many women will not be tested for HIV. What is the point they say, you can't do anything about it, and you will die anyway, as there is no cure. "Of course they don't want their baby to have it," explained one interested and caring farm wife.

"But, the women have another problem as well - many know that HIV can be transmitted through breastfeeding, but if they don't breastfeed what can they give them? And they have a very real stigma problem - if they don't breastfeed, people suspect that they have HIV. So, they hide their fears of HIV, hope for the best and fear the worst, and don't get tested. If the baby is born HIV+, it will probably die before age five years."

Again, the thought of 30,000 babies dying each year rose like a specter.

With no intervention, 90,000 HIV+ Zimbabwean mothers per year will develop (or already have) full-blown AIDS, and that will lead to a miserable death within a few years. And their children will be added to another horrifying statistic - the hundreds of thousands of AIDS orphans who will have no mother to see them through, even to their teens... So whether the baby is HIV+ or not, there are going to be 90,000 motherless children from these births.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

3 September 2002

The problems of the MTCT remain the same - ignorance and how to administer. Our hospitals here are falling apart and doctors are either on strike or leaving for greener fields. Add a famine and discriminatory passing of donor food, and some areas are really having a problem.

Got desperate over the ARV problems and started in on extending the life of the mothers with quality of life. Out of this has developed the "Living Positively with AIDS" program here - that you needn't die with HIV. With positive feeding of vegetables that you can grow yourself, you can retain HIV+ status without moving to AIDS. Extends quality of life for many years, enabling bringing up families. There is a possibility of a very exciting program, which may (or may not!) come to fruition within a couple of months - if it does it is a really interesting holistic approach to AIDS etc...

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Bio: Stella Greenway hates biographies as hers covers far too many years! She came to Africa over fifty years ago: free-lance writer, author, journalist, editor, publisher, prospector, ceramacist, farmer, and has worked extensively with NGO's, mainly with empowerment of people, but particularly women. "Currently involved with Living Positively with AIDS (Not much alternative when you are surrounded by it!)"

 


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