"There isn't a reason in the world that a baby should be born with HIV anymore. This isn't a hopeless war. It's a battle that we can win, one mother at a time."
-Robin Smalley, co-founder and international director of m2m
More than 2 million children worldwide are living with HIV/AIDs, according to the World Health Organization – and most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. These children were infected through mother-to-child vertical transmission during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
With 33 million people worldwide already living with HIV/AIDS, the HIV-positive children raise the frightening prospect of this human tragedy continuing into the next generation.
It does not have to be this way.
Mother-to-child transmission of the HIV virus is preventable. But expectant mothers first need to agree to be tested for HIV – something many avoid for fear of ostracism, or even violence, within their communities or families if they test positive.
In 2001, Dr Mitch Besser, an American obstetrician working in Cape Town, set up mothers2mothers, an innovative organization that has had remarkable success in persuading mothers-to-be to undergo tests for HIV/AIDS and in full education and support in preventing mother-to-child transmission.
HIV-positive women learn how to protect their babies from infection during the early years and come to understand that, due to the advances in anti-retroviral drugs, their HIV-status does not have to be a death sentence for them either. They also receive advice on how to talk about their status to their partners and families.
The problem, as Dr Besser saw it, was that hard-pressed doctors and nurses had no time to counsel worried mothers-to-be. Those who did agree to be tested, and who tested positive, needed far more advice and support than busy medical staff could give them.
However, Dr Besser thought there was a resource that could support expectant women – HIV-positive mothers who had agreed to be tested themselves and had given birth to healthy babies. If these Mentor Mothers could be trained to provide advice and support, surely more women would follow their example?
For three years, Dr Besser operated out of his car with no salary or staff, returning to work in the U.S. for brief periods so he could fund m2m. However, the arrival of two friends from the U.S. with management experience transformed the organization.
Robin Smalley, a former writer, producer and director of television shows was inspired by the Mentor Mothers when she visited Dr. Besser after the death of her best friend, Dr. Besser’s sister.
“Two days into my trip I told my husband we had to move to South Africa,” says Robin.
She became m2m’s first Executive Director, later becoming its International Director on her return to the U.S. She was succeeded in 2005 by Gene Falk, Besser’s former college roommate, a senior vice president at Showtime, longtime HIV/AIDS advocate and m2m founding board member in New York, who moved to South Africa that year.
Today, m2m reaches 150,000 women a month in seven African countries - South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and Swaziland.
For the Mentor Mothers, m2m provides more than an opportunity to pass on their experience to new mothers. It also allows them to develop their professional skills and competence. Mentor Mothers are rigorously trained - and they are paid.
They become integral to healthcare facilities – working alongside the medical staff. After 12-24 months with m2m, they move on – many having acquired the confidence to do something else with their lives, making way for a new cohort of Mentor Mothers.
Take Khangela, who lives in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. At eight months pregnant, Khangela learned she was HIV-positive. “It was like the whole world had come to an end,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. I was thinking: is my baby going to die? How am I going to tell this to my mom and deal with the community?”
As a Mentor Mother, Khangela is now the one answering those questions. “Women come to us and they are crying and scared. I tell them my story, that I am HIV-positive but my child is HIV-negative,” says Khangela.
“I tell them, you are going to make it, and you will raise a healthy baby. I am proof that there is hope. And I look forward to the day when we can all raise our children in an HIV-free generation.”
This Mother’s Day, give the gift of Hope, Life, and Health for a mother and her child in Africa.
Every year, over 350,000 mothers give birth to babies with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly all of these new infections can be prevented with simple medical intervention. Treatment is available, but effective education and support around this treatment is scarce. mothers2mothers bridges that gap.
A gift of $50 or more to mothers2mothers can support an HIV-positive pregnant woman to ensure she gives birth to a child who is HIV-free.
Give online at http://www.m2m.org/how-to-help/mothers-day-2010-2.html