Program helps to break myths of HIV, improve quality of life for positive people
August 5, 2010
Chrispus with his wife Esther and children at Ishiara
sub-district hospital in Kenya.
Ishiara, Kenya – Chrispus Ireri and his wife, Esther Nginya lost three children in a row – in 2000, 2002 and 2007. At the hospital, she was told it was pneumonia.
When she visited a clinic, whose HIV programs are supported by the Foundation, in 2007, Esther found out the ‘pneumonia’ responsible for the death of her children was in fact HIV.
Esther did not need to convince Chrispus to go for the test when she found she was infected with HIV – he was all too willing to go on his own. Her shock came when her husband tested HIV negative.
Thirty-five year old Chrispus revealed a rare surprise in rural Kenya – the love for his wife in the face of HIV. “I love my wife, even if she is HIV positive and I am not,” he says “It is me who went out to look for her, she did not come looking for me,” he asserts.
Chrispus resisted pressure from his own parents, who sought to disinherit him for refusing to banish his wife who they thought had ‘bewitched’ their family.
Chrispus and Esther participate in a Foundation program titled “Zingatia Maisha” – a rallying call in Kiswahili meaning ‘carefully consider life.’ Taking HIV out of the shadows, the initiative -- generously funded by GlaxoSmithkline and implemented by the Foundation in eastern Kenya -- is helping to increase the understanding of HIV as a manageable condition, break barriers associated with the virus, and bring more people into treatment.
As we walk into a rural sub district hospital in Ishiara more than 200 kilometers from the city where the program takes place, it was quite a sight to see people walk confidently past the prominent sign reading: Comprehensive Care Centre: Caring for people living with HIV.
“Not many would have the confidence to go into an HIV demarcated area five years ago. At least not in full view of the curious onlookers who spoke in judging tones,” says a nursing officer at the hospital Alice Machanga.
Inside the centre, men and women with their children openly told us their stories, including Chrispus and Esther.
Esther outside Ishiara sub-district hospital.
“Meeting with people who were like me and understood my situation helped me to overcome the feelings of denial, anger, self pity and doubt that pre-occupied my mind,” says Esther.
The adult support group she was linked to at the clinic boosted her confidence and helped both her and her husband to understand HIV and adhere to treatment. She later transitioned to a prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) support group for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
“I was even more encouraged to learn that we could still get children free from HIV if we adhered to treatment as prescribed,” she says.
The results of their bold steps three years ago have brought a dramatic improvement in Nginya’s health and two HIV-free babies – two year old Brian Muturi and seven month old Diana. Esther confounded friends and family who stole glances to watch her breastfeed her baby.
“I needed strength to exclusively breastfeed my children as curious neighbors thought my child would die just like the others,” she says.
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for HIV exposed children to ensure proper nutrition. The mother takes drugs to prevent HIV transmission to her child throughout the breastfeeding period.
Born of complex referral systems within health facilities that often resulted in patients not following up, the Zingatia Maisha program has established support systems to help people living with HIV cope with the day-to-day realties of HIV and enhance effective treatment.
“Ours is a soft skills program that seeks to deal with social issues that hinder adherence to treatment services,” says Rogers Simiyu the Coordinator of the program.
As the concept gained ground, support groups were formed within the communities. The seven community support groups in Ishiara are all linked to the facility-based support groups which are in categories of adult, PMTCT, pediatric and caregivers for focused attention. Community groups on the other hand are based within communities where people live. They provide a forum where people living with HIV meet, share experiences, learn from and encourage each other. They also engage in income generating activities to supplement their nutrition and income.
Facility support group leaders mentor the community-based support groups, who also help to trace people who default on their treatment.
Through the Zingatia Maisha program, the Foundation has helped to link 15,000 people living with HIV in eastern and western regions to support groups and health facilities, resulting in improved health provider-client relationship, which translates to improved care and quality of life for people living with HIV.
Eric Kilongi is the Foundation’s Senior Regional Communications Officer for Africa.