Through the HAART Program AIDS patients are treated with anti-retroviral drugs. People with AIDS can live healthy lives up to 25 years longer with this treatment. In simple terms, that means a mother can live long enough to care for her children and see to their education though to adulthood. Patients who were once so sick they were admitted to hospice can often be discharged after the start treatment. BBGCC employs two therapeutic counsellors who travel through the slums and shrub lands according to their appointment schedules to ensure discharged patients are taking their medications properly at home. They also transfer messages from the clinic to the patients, advising them of a doctor’s request to see their children at the clinic, for example. The home visits also include advice about vegetable gardening and small animal husbandry so that the patients can live independently, generate income and support their families. I spent a day travelling with one of the therapeutic counsellors.
This woman has a healthy little girl. Thanks to infection prevention practices used during the delivery of the child, she did not get HIV during birth. When a pregnant mother is diagnosed with HIV early enough, she can begin anti-retroviral therapy and reduce the risk of infecting her unborn child to a minimum. The danger is reduced further when the children are delivered by Caesarean section. Disinfecting the birth canal before a natural birth has also been shown to help somewhat, but hasn’t been as effective in preventing mother-child infections.
Earlier worries surrounding the Prevention of Mother-to-child-transmission PMTCT program held that if the child was not infected, the woman’s condition may become resistant to further treatment have been addressed. Mothers now begin a special dose of anti-retroviral drugs as soon as their birth pains begin and continue that dose until their birth injuries and surgical incisions are healed.
Two days later we saw this woman and her baby in the hospice waiting area where the baby waved at us happily.
All the Way into the Bush
The therapy advisor drives the jeep deep into the bush along roads I would have considered impassable.
“I have been doing this for a long time and have a lot of experience heading into the areas our patients come from,” the advisor tells me as we come to two huts in the middle of the bush. This particular advisor has been working with the Brotherhood of Blessed Gerard Care Centres since 1997 as a volunteer and full time since 2000.
As we approach a flock of chickens runs out. In this family, the therapy advisor tells me, the grandmother, her son, her daughter and their little girl all have AIDS and all of them are supplied with anti-retroviral drugs through the HAART program. The therapy advisor talks with the patients to ensure everyone is taking their medications in the proper doses at the right time. Failure to take the medicines properly could result in the virus becoming resistant to treatment.
Both the therapeutic counsellors travel into the bush to provide aftercare to 13 patients per day, but ensuring that patients are taking their medications properly is not their only concern. They also help the patients cultivate fruits and vegetables. In this household, not only has the father developed a small business selling his produce, but has started breeding and selling chickens. With the support of the Brotherhood of the Blessed Gerard, he has managed to create an independent living for himself and his family. As he shows us around, it becomes clear that he is proud of his small holding and all he has accomplished and we can see exactly what the work of Blessed Gérard's Care Centre can achieve.
It brought us great joy to watch the man climb his own Papaya tree to pick some of the tasty, juice fruit to give us as a present. As we left, he offered us a friendly handshake and waved after the jeep until we couldn’t see him anymore. This work is clearly enormously important. Without medication and support these people would be in such bad shape they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed and would have been dying in front of our eyes. The last patient we have to visit is a woman with mouth rot. Later the care team arrives with the ambulance arrives. She has a mouth full of sores which indicates her immune system has weakened. Her illness is at a stage when small infections become big problems and occur frequently.
That evening I asked my brother how it could be that an entire family could be infected with this deadly virus.
“Don’t you know? Many women are raped here, but that isn’t the only problem. Many husbands go to work far away and “have fun“ while they are gone. Then they come home, give their wives another baby and the baby is infected during the birth by a mother who usually doesn’t know she is HIV positive until the symptoms begin to show a lot later.“
“Can’t the woman resist?“ I ask my brother. “Can’t she refuse him if he has been with another woman and gotten himself infected?”
My brother was quiet for a few minutes. “No. It doesn’t work like that. She doesn’t have any rights over her husband. He is the lord of the manor and his wife must obey him. The worst thing about this disease is that there are several different strains of the virus and there is a risk of being re-infected with each episode of sexual contact.”
“We once had a graduate student from the University of Berkeley come here to find out why Mandeni is the AIDS capital of the world. He reached two conclusions: it’s the inequality between men and women and the poverty. In a place where men earn so much more than women, they have all the money in the bag and women have to do whatever they can to survive.
“For women here, that means the “sugar daddy” system, but one man is not enough. One man pays for the school fees, another for food, another for clothes, a fourth pays the rent. And so, promiscuity rages as a means of survival and an extremely high rate of infection with AIDS is the result. We aren’t proud of any of this, but we are working against it.
Asked my brother if he didn’t feel he was working in vain in the face of such a huge problem. They cannot save the whole world.
“The whole world, perhaps not, but there are thousands and thousands of individuals we can save…and each one of them is an entire world.”
Please help us help.
This page is part of the Newsletter No. 29 of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard
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This page was last updated on Tuesday, 15 January 2013 12:50:16