It never crossed Khonjiswa’s mind that she could be HIV-positive. Growing up in South Africa, she says, most people thought only promiscuous women got HIV, and she had only had one man in her life. So in 2006, when she tested positive for HIV while pregnant with her first child, she couldn’t believe it. She insisted on taking the test three times.
Much to Khonjiswa’s shock, every result came back positive. She contemplated suicide. “In my mind, it was the end of the world for me and my child,” she says.
What Khonjiswa didn’t know was that one year earlier, African-based NGO mothers2mothers (m2m) had joined forces with Johnson & Johnson with the goal of helping more mothers protect their babies from HIV infection and stay healthy themselves. Khonjiswa’s clinic had m2m services: HIV-positive Mentor Mothers employed and trained to link women just like her to lifesaving medical care. A Mentor Mother’s role was to educate and support HIV-positive moms-to-be to initiate and adhere to their treatment.
“The women at m2m made me feel welcome and unafraid. They told me their own stories of living with HIV. They taught me how to prevent spreading the virus to my baby and live positively. I have to be honest, I was not 100% sure about everything, but somehow I had new hope that it was not the end,” she says.
Through the generous support of partners like Johnson & Johnson, m2m has become a global leader in efforts to bring pediatric AIDS infections to zero and improve the health and wellbeing of mothers, families, and communities.
It’s a joy to go into a site and hear a nurse or the head of the clinic say, “You need to know that it’s been three years since we have had a baby born in this clinic with HIV because of mothers2mothers.”
However, out in the community, we are now seeing children who were born HIV negative, becoming infected after infancy. We also see rising number of infections and deaths among adolescents, particular among adolescent girls and young women.
Responding to this need, m2m now engages mothers and their families over a longer period of time. We are looking beyond survival, focusing on giving children the opportunity to thrive through our Early Childhood Development and Paediatric Case Finding and Support programs. When children reach reproductive age, m2m’s new DREAMS initiative in South Africa is providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary to protect themselves and the next generation from HIV infection. This family-centered approach is the only way that the vicious cycle of pediatric AIDS will be broken and a true HIV-free generation can become a reality.
Looking back at those scary days in 2006, it’s astonishing to see how far we have come for women like Khonjiswa, who feared that HIV was bringing their lives to an end. Today, m2m and Johnson & Johnson’s 10-year partnership is proof positive of how many lives have changed. Khonjiswa now works at m2m as a Mentor Mother, helping other women realize that living with HIV is not the end of their world. She is a proud mother to not one, but two HIV-free children, who are full of life, happiness, and big dreams. Her oldest, Luthando, now nine years old, tells his mother he is studying hard so that when he grows up, he can get a good job and buy them a bigger house.
That job? Luthando says he is going to be a doctor because he sees “a lot of sick people around” and wants to help them. While he works towards that dream, he is practicing his medical skills at home, reminding his mother, whom he describes as “strong and beautiful,” to take her HIV medicine every day.
In Luthando, I can see that lives are, in fact, being changed on the way to zero.