Happy Moments Working with Maternal and Child HIV in Zambia

University of Arizona College of Medicine medical student Shana Semmens spent six weeks working with Tiny Tim and Friends to provide HIV-positive mothers with testing and counseling in Zambia.

Shana Semmens/EGPAF

“That must be soooo sad!”

That’s the most common response I get when I tell people that I spent six weeks in Africa working with a pediatric AIDS clinic. I always smile and respond,

“Parts of it were, but I saw many good things happening and had a lot of happy times, too!”

Yes, HIV/AIDS is still a major health concern throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. Though we’ve made a lot of progress, there is still a lot of work to be done with disclosure, decreasing transmission, and medication compliance.

As a medical student in the United States, we learned about the epidemiology of HIV, the small proteins that allow the virus to enter cells, and a list of drugs that can combat the disease’s progression. But with HIV prevalence in the U.S. near 0.6 percent, I never really saw any patients affected by the virus. I wanted to know more, so I traveled to a country where prevalence is closer to 14 percent – Zambia.

I volunteered with Tiny Tim and Friends (TTF), an organization dedicated to finding and treating vulnerable mothers and children from the most underserved areas of Lusaka, Zambia.

TTF has a 98 percent success rate of preventing mothers from passing the HIV virus to their children. I saw many of these children playing in a chair next to their mother while I performed her physical exam, or hiding behind their mom’s skirt because they didn’t know what to make of my pale skin. They didn’t need medications or exams. These children could just be children. And that is a happy thing.

When an HIV-positive 3-year-old came in with infections in the tips of her fingers, she wouldn’t move her hands and she wouldn’t smile. We treated her with simple course of antibiotics. Three weeks later she came in twirling and singing to herself in the middle of the room. She giggled as I did her exam and tickled her belly while listening to her heart and lungs. She was happy like a 3-year-old should be. And I was happy that because she has a clinic like ours to go to, her mother knew her status and they could both be treated, instead of getting sicker.

One adolescent patient I met wanted to be a teacher. Several others wanted to be doctors. Their dreams for their future were happy. And I was happy that those dreams could become a reality for those children, despite having HIV, because it’s a reality that couldn’t be hoped for 20 years ago.

I am happy knowing these dreams are possible thanks to organizations like TTF and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS foundation (EGPAF). I am happy that I had the opportunity to meet and work with TTF and those patients so I know more about the challenges and successes of HIV care. And I will be happier when infection rates fall even lower thanks to the continuing hard work of people in those organizations when I (hopefully) get to return to Zambia.

In Zambia, EGPAF partners with Tiny Tim and Friends to provide trainings and mentorship services for TTF counselors and staff. Shana Semmens is a medical student at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, Arizona. After graduating in 2014, Shana plans to specialize in family and community medicine.