In 2012, I went to Tanzania with Vanessa from The Saturdays, to see how money raised through Sport Relief is being spent. We didn’t go to any hospitals or see anything particularly tough, but Marvin did during a trip to Uganda that year with JLS. So when we were asked as a couple to travel to Kenya this year, Marvin was a bit more prepared and tried to warn me about what it would be like, but nothing really prepares you for what you see when you get there. I think this trip was always going to be really different for us as we’re parents now to our little Alaia-Mai, who is two-years-old.
On our first day in Kisumu, western Kenya, we spent time with mothers2mothers, a fantastic organisation funded by Sport Relief, that works alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics, which supports mothers living with HIV through pregnancy, birth and post-birth. One of the Mentor Mothers, Dorcus is an amazing lady who has worked for the programme for seven years and she showed us around the hospital.
It was incredible to hear first-hand how invaluable this service is. Dorcus explained to us that many women still do not know about the risks of passing HIV to their unborn babies and that there is still so much stigma around it. The shame is so bad that some women won’t even get tested so unwittingly pass it on to their unborn children. mothers2mothers helps to remove this stigma and provide counselling and support to mothers through their HIV test and results, if it does turn out that they have passed on the virus.
One of the medical ways Mentor Mothers help is by ensuring new mothers have the support of the nurses in the hospital to receive what I can only call the ‘miracle drops’ doctors give to babies within the first hour of being born. With medical interventions, such as Nevirapine, the risk of a mother passing HIV on to her baby falls to less than 2%.
Dorcus introduced us to Kazia and her two-day-old baby boy, Brighton. Thanks to mothers2mothers, even though Kazia has HIV, The other two children she already has do not have HIV. The hope is the same for Brighton, who was given the drops soon after he was born and will continue on this treatment every day for the first three months of his life. Dorcus explained that he will be given his first HIV test at six weeks, nine months and at 18 months, at which point, Kazia will know if her little boy is clear of HIV.
As a mum myself, I can’t even comprehend how anxious every one of those tests must make you feel and how long 18 months must seem to wait to know if your baby is sick or not. But mothers2mothers offers these women the hope and support they otherwise would just not get.
We also met Elsa and her beautiful baby girl, Cindy. Elsa is HIV positive but thanks to mothers2mothers, Cindy was given the drops and now at 19 months old, has just been given the all clear. As much as this was amazing news for Elsa, she is still saddened by the fact that this was not the case for her son, Paul who is 10 years old. When Elsa was pregnant with Paul, she did not know about this service. There was no one to help, support or provide the treatment Elsa needed through her pregnancy and birth, or give her baby any chance of not contracting HIV. Paul gets very sick on a regular basis as a result of having the virus; but Elsa lives so far from the hospital that she has to carry Paul for seven kilometres to get him any help.
The antiretroviral (ARV) drugs he has to take also weaken his body if they are not taken with food, but Elsa and her family are so poor they often cannot afford food. As a result she feels like she is forcing her little boy to take medication that actually makes him feel ill. It’s heart-breaking as a mother but she knows without these drugs, his condition would worsen.
Towards the end of our day with Dorcus, we met a mother and baby both called Mary. Baby Mary had been rushed into the intensive care unit just a few days before we met her. She arrived convulsing as she had contracted acute malaria and was severely malnourished, both of these are due to her having HIV. Mary senior found out she had HIV five months into her pregnancy but she was too far away from any hospitals to get any treatment. She was also in denial about her condition and didn’t realise help existed to prevent her baby from also getting HIV.
To add to her already desperate situation, the ARV drugs both Mary and her baby have to take need to be kept cold in a fridge or they lose their potency and effectiveness. Mary does not have electricity at home and couldn’t afford to buy a fridge even if she did. Baby Mary is 11-months-old but she is already so ill and weak, she can’t even sit up on her own and has difficulty breathing. It was really hard to see and notice the differences between this little girl and our little girl, Alaia-Mai, when she was at the same stage of life. I just felt so bad for them and frustrated that she felt so ashamed about having HIV and wish Mary had known that organisations like mothers2mothers, with amazing Mentor Mothers like Dorcas, exist.
After Dorcus had finished showing us around the hospital, we were saddened to learn that she is herself living with HIV. In fact, every single one of the thousand Mentor Mothers working across Africa, is an HIV positive woman. When a newly diagnosed client learns that the Mentor Mother supporting her has walked in her shoes, it provides a sense of hope and belonging. Amazingly, rather than dwell on this fact, Doracs has decided to use her situation to raise awareness and educate mothers-to-be through the Mentor Mothers programme. She only found out she had the virus when she came in for a routine ante-natal check-up when she was pregnant and had an HIV test. Dorcus explained that because the test is not mandatory, so many women refuse it because of the stigma associated with HIV.
Thankfully, because Dorcus had the test and got immediate treatment, she is now a mother to four HIV negative children. Dorcus is a complete and utter inspiration for sharing her story to help future mothers; she has a huge smile and a warm personality and you can just see how the new mums she spends time with entirely trust and connect with her.
Our day at the hospital was rounded off in the most incredible way when we heard that a baby had just been delivered. I was privileged to be allowed to see the moment when the miracle drops were given to this baby within minutes of him being born. Knowing that these drugs would essentially save this baby’s life, it was completely overwhelming.
Whether it is location, lack of education, refusal to accept the condition or fear of being shunned by your community, there are many reasons why across Africa there is still a huge problem of mothers passing the HIV virus onto their newborns. mothers2mothers faces a huge challenge to remove all these barriers but donations this Sport Relief can help.