Hospital embraces initiative to curb HIV infections at birth
“My name is Mary Malonza and I am HIV positive,” the plump, tall and brown lady casually says as a way of introduction while edging herself next to me on a bench at Makueni County Referral Hospital.
The ‘positive’ bit unnerves me a little but from the look on her face, the hearty and jovial woman does not look any bit worried about her HIV status.
From her desk at the hospital where she first sees her clients to her shared office, Malonza walks tall and confident.
At the county referral hospital, Malonza, 35, is a mentor mother; whose duty is to talk to expectant mothers, check if they have undergone HIV test by scrutinising their clinic cards and patiently persuade those who have not to undergo the test. All this is in line with the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.
Packs of condoms – male and female – are placed on the table alongside dummies for female and male sexual organs.
She uses these to teach mothers on safe sex and prevention of re-infection of different strains of HIV among couples.
Her first point of contact is to pour her heart out to each expectant mother visiting the hospital for the normal pre natal care, disclosing her HIV status and advising the women on the need to deliver healthy babies free from HIV.
“First I have to check their clinic cards to ascertain if they have tested for HIV. I encourage those who have not to undertake the test by telling them my life experience and explaining reasons why they should test. It is all about the health of the unborn child,” says Malonza.
For Malonza however, it has not been a smooth ride. She endured ridicule and rejection in her family after she tested positive while on a second pregnancy.
After testing positive at the facility where she works, the mother of two was immediately put on Anti Retro Viral drugs (ARVs) to protect the unborn child from contracting the virus. The child is now five years old and healthy.
“I knew my status in 2010 when I was four months pregnant. I had come for a routine check up and decided to take the test as advised. After seeing the results I felt the world crumble before me,” she recalls.
Matters were made worse by her mother in law who flatly refused to accommodate her in her compound, fearing she might infect the rest of the family members. Her husband remained largely aloof.
“She said she cannot accept an HIV positive person in her compound, that I would bring too many graves in the family,” she says. With that level of stigma, depression set it. She contemplated suicide.
Her rescue came when she shared her predicament with medical staff at the hospital, part of whom visited and talked her mother in law out of the ignorance associated with HIV and its transmission. Soon after, daughter and mother in law became good friends.
Inspired by the acceptance, Malonza decided to volunteer as a mentor mother and give hope to other HIV positive women.
An NGO that has engaged the two mentor mothers since 2011 gives them a small stipend. For Malonza though, the drive is not monetary.
“We want a HIV free society. When I see HIV positive mothers give birth to healthy babies, I’m filled with joy and motivation to continue,” says Malonza whose desire is to go back to school and do a course in nursing and counseling.
Currently, Malonza and her colleague Elizabeth Muendo, handle 80 positive mothers who meet twice per month at the hospital to share their experiences and encourage each other.
She says the hardest part for those who turn positive is to break the news to family. And husbands who ordinarily do not accompany their wives to the clinic are difficult to convince for the test.
Ms Malonza says acceptance of the positive results is the first step to living positively then taking drugs as prescribed.
Those who have gone through her hands speak of a warm hearted and patient woman who has impacted positively on their lives.
One of them is Lucy* (not her real name) who says it is through the intervention of the mentor mother that she is today a proud mother of a healthy baby boy despite her positive status.
Lucy tested positive for HIV at five months pregnant and was placed on drugs immediately. Her first born baby boy is now 11 months pregnant.
“Mentor mothers are doing a great service to us. She gave me hope and reason to live by removing the weight on our shoulders after sharing her story with me,” Lucy says, fondly clutching her son.
The first time mother says her greatest joy was to give birth to an HIV negative child. “At the back of your mind you know the child is innocent so when it turns negative you are overjoyed,” she observes.
Lucy’s husband, though supportive, has however refused to test for HIV, only saying he will do it someday.
Dr Pius Mutuku who is in charge of HIV and PMCTC programme at the hospital says overtime mentor mothers have helped reduce incidences of mother to child transmission.
“The last one year, we have recorded 120 new births at this facility and only one turned positive for HIV. That means more and more women are testing for HIV and taking precautionary measures as advised by mentor mothers,” says Mutuku.
He notes that expectant mothers who turn positive are placed on ARVs immediately through what is called Test and Treat Approach.
After birth, the baby is also put on drugs for 18 months under close monitoring of health officers, during which time it is tested at different stages. The mother is however allowed to breast feed like any other.
The medic acknowledges that through the ‘mentor mother programme’ stigma has been eroded away.