About 11 years ago at the prime child-bearing age of 27, Linet Odimo had a life- changing moment. She tested HIV positive.
A lot of thoughts raced through her mind including the fear of never bearing and raising healthy children.
Knowing her HIV status, however, proved a game-changer for Ms Odimo who today is a proud mother of three healthy children and part of a dedicated network of volunteers campaigning against mother-to-child transmission of the virus in Kisii and Homa Bay counties.
Without anti-retro viral (ARV- the immunity boosting medication), the chances of a mother passing HIV to her unborn child is high. But like millions of other women worldwide, Ms Odimo was put ARVs after testing positive, stuck with the treatment, and her children did not contract the virus.
She is now a “mother mentor”, offering support and health education to HIV-positive mothers and other women in a bid to minimise HIV transmission to unborn children. Similar mothers2mothers programmes have been rolled out in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland and Uganda with an estimated 1.4 million HIV-positive women covered so far.
“I am HIV positive and I normally share my stories with mothers. I gave birth to three boys and they are all negative, this was by the grace of God, but I would not like a mother to make a mistake of infecting her unborn child,” she said.
Ms Odimo has for the past one year traversed homes and health facilities in Kisii and Homa Bay — pushing to get expectant women tested for HIV as part of a strategy for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission.
“When a mother defaults on ARVs. It really hurts me. I always feel for the baby much more than the mother. A question that really disturbs me is why a mother would want to infect an innocent child yet there are several effective ways of preventing infection,” she said when the Business Daily caught up with her at a maternity clinic at the Homa Bay Referral Hospital.
A ‘mother-mentor’ educates and supports HIV positive mothers throughout pregnancy to birth and into the first 18 months of each child’s life. The women are given the information they need to make decisions about living with HIV and protecting their babies as well as dealing with stigma that still surrounds the disease.
Ever since she took the voluntary mentorship role, Ms Odimo has so far helped deliver 217 uninfected children. She takes care of 77 HIV mothers.
The mentorship programme has registered major strides in prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT) both in the two counties.
“There has been a lot of improvement as far as prevention of mother-to-child transmission is concerned. Five years ago, mother-to-child infection was as high as 8.2 per cent. Currently, it is as low as 2.4 per cent. There has been a significant reduction over the years,” said Dr Richard Onkware, head of HIV/STI services in Kisii.
The shift is largely attributed to more expectant women being mobilised by mentors such as Ms Odimo to visit hospitals for professional care and advice.
“Working with ‘mentor-mothers’ have greatly improved the data. They give the mothers the courage to get into the programme and also has tremendously reduced stigma,” Dr Onkware added.
Today in Kisii, there are about 66 ‘mentor-mothers’ with each attached to over 80 women.
From the programme, children who have been born negative to positive mothers graduate after every two years together with their mothers.
“From 2013 to date about 7,200 children have graduated from the programme, which means we have prevented them from getting infected,” explained Dr Onkware.
Progress has also been registered in Homa Bay where health authorities said that the number of children born free of HIV has improved to about 68 percent from 20 percent previously.
“The task we have is to increase the number of children to 100 percent and to ensure babies born negative to remain negative. With this we will have an HIV- free generation in the coming years,” Homa Bay Health Executive, Richard Muga Dr Muga said.
Currently, 2,800 HIV positive mothers are under care and mentorship in Homa Bay.
Latest data by the National Aids Control Council (NACC) showed that the national PMTCT coverage stands at about 76 percent with 53, 067 mothers on the programme although some 64,497 are still in need of the services.
The mother-to-child HIV transmission rate nationally stands at 11 percent, down from 14.3 per cent.
“Of the HIV positive mothers who became pregnant and had children, an average 14 percent had transmitted HIV to their children previously, but this has come own to 11 percent and our target is to reach five per cent,” said Kilonzo Nduku, chief executive, NACC.