Am I Not the Healthy One?
To mark International Women’s Day, we hear from Justine, a young mother living with HIV in Cameroon who has taken her HIV diagnosis in her stride.
Justine Sirri is a 29-year-old mother of two living in Bamenda, the Anglophone capital of Cameroon’s northwest region. “I am happy,” she says, “I like being a mother.”
Last year Justine was “sick on and off” and suspected that she had malaria. When she came to Bingo Baptist Hospital for treatment, she was counselled and tested for HIV. She discovered that she is HIV-positive. Despite being aware of the challenges that would lie ahead, Justine took the news in stride.
“For me it was normal because I have seen people [living with HIV]. I have an aunt like that. I said ‘Let me concentrate on my drugs and I’ll be fine,’” says Justine. "I could be dead right now. The doctors and nurses have made it so that I am here today."
Even though Justine has accepted her HIV status, she remains cautious because of stigma surrounding people living with HIV. She has crafted a response to anyone who might try to stigmatise her:
“I can stand and say it is in my body. It is not in your body, so I don’t care what you say. I can stand and say, ‘Look at me. Who is healthy? Am I not the healthy one?’”
Shortly after receiving her diagnosis, Justine learned that she was pregnant. Her friends directed her to the antenatal clinic supported by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) at Bamenda Regional Hospital.
“They said it is good because they have the specialists, all the materials, all the machines to take care of you,” says Justine. “Now I know the staff. They speak with me like a friend. They give me advice, treat me well. Madame Tih [the head nurse of reproductive health and midwifery] also told me what to do with breastfeeding, what to do to avoid my baby becoming infected with HIV.
My only fear is that this child should get HIV/AIDS, and I am praying that he does not. But I know that it depends on me, the mother. I am the one who has the largest part to play for the child.
"My only fear is that this child should get HIV/AIDS, and I am praying that he does not. But I know that it depends on me, the mother. I am the one who has the largest part to play for the child."
Helen Tih and her staff see 400-500 clients a month on average. This is remarkable growth from the average of eight clients they would see when she started with the unit in 2007. Antenatal care is essential for women living with HIV in order to ensure prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT). This is especially important for women like Justine who have only recently been diagnosed.
“I did the counselling with Justine,” said Madame Tih. “I asked if she knows about HIV, if she knows the difference between HIV and AIDS, the mode of transmission, the importance of taking drugs, the importance of nutrition, the importance of breastfeeding. I told her that when her baby is born, he will need to be on Nevirapine syrup—an antiretroviral drug that will protect the baby in case of transmission.”
“To be a midwife, you have to be a someone who is open,” says Madame Tih. “You have to be calm, polite—because the hormones of pregnant women can make them behave and think differently. You need to know the high risk, the danger signs so that you can [help] the client have a healthy baby.”
“We want our women to have normal deliveries. We have a routine here that when you deliver you come back and show us the baby and we clap for you. We share that experience with the new mothers—and the ladies have not yet delivered see that and they are not afraid.
“We try to have our clients go out to talk about HIV and educate the public to convince other women to come the antenatal care clinic. We have a good rapport with them and so our prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) rate is near 100 percent and almost all of our babies are free from the virus—at 18 months we do an HIV test and our success rate is near 100 percent.”
Justine’s story was originally published on the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) website as part of their blog series for International Women’s Day which celebrates inspiring women they have worked with over the past year.