USPG International Programmes Manager Fran Mate reports on a programme run by the Anglican Church of Tanzania that is enabling mothers with HIV to deliver healthy babies.
The women I was talking to had tears in their eyes. They were so happy to discover their children had been born healthy, not infected by HIV.
I was in Mzula village, which is benefiting from a USPG-supported programme set up by the Church of Tanzania to prevent HIV-positive mothers passing on HIV to their babies.
The programme has turned lives around. Women with HIV who were once bed-ridden are now taking medication and look well. These women had given up hope that they would one day be able to have children, but now they have babies who are healthy and happy.
These women, who are not all churchgoers, are deeply thankful for how the church has helped them. One mother told me: ‘We can live again! We have our lives back!’
The statistics are impressive. Launched in 2015, in three years this HIV programme has worked with 6,300 women of child-bearing age and 7,200 infants, as well as reaching more than 200,000 villagers with health education about HIV and AIDS.
A monitoring process tracked 190 HIV-positive pregnant women – and found that, thanks to the programme, they all delivered babies who were HIV-negative.
Women participating in the programme learned about safe motherhood, the importance of adhering to medication regimes, and how to care for babies so they remain healthy. Furthermore, through the experience of the women, communities as a whole were inspired and developed a stronger sense of collective identity.
Monica lives in Mita village where she grows vegetables on her smallholding to help support her family. She learned about the Church of Tanzania’s HIV programme when it was launched.
She recalled: “I was already pregnant and felt very sick when I went with my husband to be tested for HIV at Mvumi Mission Hospital. We were tested and the doctor asked us if we were ready to know our status. We had already received counselling to prepare us for the results, whether positive or negative.
“The doctor told us we were both HIV-positive. We were immediately put onto anti-retroviral medicines [to combat the effects of HIV]. A few months later, my son Good Luck was born. I was delighted to learn that he was HIV-free. Also, my husband and I are now in much better health. Before we found it difficult even to work on our smallholding.”
Monica’s first husband died to AIDS in 2013. The marriage left her HIV-positive.
She said: “My first husband would not have died if this programme had been available. I now thank God and the programme staff because they helped me and my husband, as well as my son.
“I can now talk to anybody about my HIV-status because the programme has helped to reduce the stigma since teaching people in my village about HIV.”
The programme was greatly needed. One problem was that mothers – and their spouses – were reluctant to go for HIV-testing. This was largely because the hospital felt like a public space and, due to the stigma that many attach to HIV, people didn’t want it known that they were going for testing.
So, at the launch of the programme at the Anglican-run Mvumi Mission Hospital, one of the first goals was to create a private space for the HIV work. As a result, more people started coming for testing – from five to eight people per day to eight to 10 people per day.
It was also known that many couldn’t easily reach the hospital, so community clinics were set up in Holo, Mzula, Chihembe and Mita villages. As a result, a village survey conducted in 2017 found that 100 per cent of households were aware of how they could access safe and private testing.
Those who go for testing receive counselling while they wait for their results, which take about an hour to process. If HIV-positive they are put on medication and pregnant women receive instruction in how to care for their babies.
The babies are also prescribed anti-retroviral medication. The mothers are shown how best to breastfeed their babies – for example they are told to breastfeed for the first year to ensure their babies are well-nourished, but after one year they are instructed to stop breastfeeding because when babies start teething they can bite the nipple which creates the risk that HIV could be transmitted in the blood.
To me, this is an example of mission. These children would have been affected by HIV and would have died. But instead they are healthy. They have been given a new lease of life – a second chance – and their mothers are healthy. This is new hope where previously there was no hope.
USPG is now working with the Anglican Church to see how together we can develop this programme.
One particular focus will be to target more men. It might be the case that more people know how HIV is transmitted, but there needs to be a deeper change in attitudes so that there is a change in lifestyle.
In fact, while the rate of HIV in Tanzania is lower than most neighbouring countries, the country has seen a rise in new infections. It’s like smoking: people know the dangers but ignore the risks.
The programme has received support from village chiefs who have made it mandatory for husbands to accompany their wives when they go for testing.
So, in the next phase of the programme, more women and men will be tested so that more lives can be safeguarded.
News about the success of the programme has reached the government, and the government has pledged to support a public/private partnership with the hospital, providing medical supplies, personnel and supervision.
I’d like to give the final word to two of the women I met. One said: “My first three children died but, because of this project, I now have two children who are healthy and HIV-negative. I now have a family. I have gained strength and I am still alive.”
Another said: “Thank you Anglican Church for giving us this opportunity to live again. We are so happy you care for us. We pray that you will continue to care for many others.”
Find out more about the work of USPG at www.uspg.org.uk