Stigmatisation slows Kenya's efforts to avert mother- to-child HIV transmission

Source:Xinhua Published: 2012-11-19 18:09:28

Many pregnant women in Kenya are giving birth to HIV positive babies because of stigmatisation and discrimination.

Health experts noted that the two vices make pregnant women who are living with the disease or who do not know their status shun hospitals.

The women end up seeking services of traditional birth attendants or deliver in poor-equipped health centers thus exposing their children to HIV.

Dr William Maina, Head of National AIDS/STD Control Program (Nascop), said that despite Kenya making great strides in fight against the disease, stigmatisation remains a great challenge.

"Some people still treat HIV as a 'special' disease. Those who are living with it are frowned upon. Great awareness about the disease has helped to reduce this but the cases still persist. Fear of stigmatisation prevents pregnant women from giving birth in hospitals," said Maina at a recent forum on mother to child HIV transmission in Nairobi.

When pregnant women avoid hospitals, chances of them infecting their children with HIV at birth are high.

"It is important for the HIV status of a pregnant woman to be known. This helps in determining whether the mother will transmit the disease to her baby or not. The status is central for the survival of the baby," noted Maina.

In Kenya, it is estimated that approximately 13,000 pregnant women give birth to HIV positive babies annually, which has dropped from about 23,000 cases in 2007.

Experts note the cases have reduced significantly because of government efforts to strengthen Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) services offered across the country.

The services are available at nearly 5,000 private and public health facilities across the East African nation. In public hospitals, PMTCT services are free due to government and its partners' subsidies, making them accessible to many pregnant women.

"We have ensured that any pregnant woman who visits hospital for delivery or antenatal clinic undergoes a HIV test. Once they know their status, we counsel and encourage them to attend clinics, " said Maina.

However, he observed that only about 67 percent of pregnant women, who know their status, fully attend antenatal clinics.

"Where do the rest go to? This is where fear of stigmatisation comes into play. The women keep off clinics for fear of discrimination or perhaps they refuse to acknowledge their status. Thus, they increase their chances of passing the disease to their children," said Maina.

According to the HIV expert, babies can acquire HIV from their mothers at three stages.

"Mothers can pass the disease to their children when they are still in the womb, while giving birth or when they are breast- feeding. This is the reason why PMTCT is very important since once doctors know a pregnant woman's status, they will keep the baby safe from HIV," he said.

Mercy Achieng, who works at a public hospital in Nairobi as a mentor mother for HIV positive pregnant women noted that stigmatisation is still a major hindrance in the East African nation's quest to eliminate mother-to-child infection.

Achieng, who is HIV positive, recounted that many people in the Kenyan society still view HIV as a curse.

"About three decades since HIV was diagnosed in Kenya, people do not treat the disease as any other. They have not fully accepted those living with the disease and talk about it," she said.

Discrimination, according to Achieng, is worse for pregnant women since they are carrying life in their wombs.

"When a pregnant woman is diagnosed with HIV, discrimination starts, particularly in the family. Her husband sees her as immoral yet many women get the disease from their spouses," she recounted.

At the hospital, she noted, some nurses make it hard for HIV pregnant women.

"They will abuse them or talk about them negatively. This becomes nightmarish for many pregnant women, who end up not attending antenatal clinics. The women later give birth to HIV positive babies," she noted.

Besides stigmatisation, she noted that violence against women and poverty also contributes to mother-to-child HIV infections.

"Most HIV pregnant women give birth to healthy babies, but end up infecting them with the disease because they cannot afford formula or other foods they should feed their babies. The women breast-feed their newborns increasing chances of passing HIV to them," noted Achieng.

On the other hand, Achieng and Maina noted that violence against women makes them vulnerable to HIV.

"Many married women are diagnosed with HIV during antenatal clinics visit. Most of them blame their status on their husbands. The women get infected because they have little choice to make when it comes to using contraceptives or telling their men to go for HIV test," said Maina.

Most men, according to the two, do not go for HIV tests or when they know their status, they do not inform their wives.

Kenya hopes to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission by 2015. The East African nation recently launched a program known as Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV to help in the course.

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