September 2014

One Mom at a Time: Traveling health workers provide a lifeline for HIV-positive mothers

Created by:




The sun is barely over the horizon in Sargur, India, which means that Nagaratha* and Marjula are awake and traversing the dusty roads of this rural community.

This morning, Nagaratha and Marjula are starting their day by visiting Rathna, a 22-year-old mother who lives with her infant son in a poor village surrounded by fields of sugar cane and corn. Throughout her recent pregnancy, Rathna worked hard in those fields, stopping only right before she delivered her baby two-and-a-half months ago. Rathna laughs easily, despite having been recently diagnosed with HIV. She learned her HIV status during her fifth month of pregnancy.

Nagaratha and Marjula are health counselors for Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), an EGPAF partner working towards an AIDS-free India. SAATHII focuses on ensuring maternal and child health for families affected by HIV.

If an expectant mother living with HIV adheres to treatment, it is unlikely that she will transmit the virus to her child during pregnancy or childbirth. And if she remains on treatment after the baby is born, she can safely breastfeed.

Fortunately, counselors with SAATHII are able to provide Rathna with the information, antiretroviral medication, and emotional support that she needs. Every week, Nagaratha and Marjula visit Rathna, bringing her antiretroviral medication and checking on her well-being. The counselors also provide a travel stipend for  Rathna so that she can visit a local hospital for follow-up testing and treatment.

The young mother doesn’t yet know for certain that her son is HIV-free—but so far he has tested negative, so she is hopeful.

Nagaratha and Marjula don’t just provide medications; they also work to provide the social support Rathna needs to ensure she takes her medication and maintains her hospital visits despite stigma and other social challenges she faces because she is living with HIV.

“Whenever they speak with her they will be speaking with a smiling face and with supportive words,” says Hemanth a SAATHII program manager in Sargur. “If they scold her or tell her that what she is doing is wrong, then she will never come back to the hospital. They have to convince the client that she has been supported. They are nonjudgmental.”

Having delivered medication, and assured that Rathna is adhering to treatment and is safe, Nagaratha and Marjula head back out onto the main road. With a caseload of around 400 clients, they will be making many more visits today.

This article orignally appeared on Editor’s note: Part of a special series on the global health workforce, in partnership with the Frontline Health Workers Coalition. Check out #HealthWorkersCount on Twitter for more from coalition partners. Issue No. 18 of Impact, focusing on the global health workforce, launches next week.

*Interview subjects asked that they be identified only by first names.