Rathna: Like a Diamond

Nagaratha, a counselor with Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) checks in with Rathna and her two-and-a-half month old son.

Ann Summa for EGPAF, 2012

Too often, ethnic minorities living with HIV face compounded stigma and poor access to community resources like health care. Fortunately, traveling community health workers are making strides with these key populations.

Many members of the small, secluded, indigenous forest tribes of southern India face poverty, loneliness, and poor access to health care—which can exacerbate the transmission of HIV in the community.

Rathna, lives with her family in a poor village in southern India, 60 kilometers from Mysore. The village is surrounded by fields of sugar cane and corn. Electrified fences border the fields because otherwise, a herd of elephants will come out of the forest at night and destroy the crops. The elephants present a constant threat, but the fences have been effective.

Throughout pregnancy, Rathna worked hard in those fields, stopping only right before she delivered her baby.

It was a fast delivery at home, followed by a visit to the Vivekananda Memorial Hospital in Sargur, which is run by the Swami Vivekananda Youth Moment (SVYM), a nongovernmental organization, founded in 1984 by medical students. SVYM provides medical care to people with limited resources, particularly indigenous people like Rathna, who have been dispossessed of their homes in the forest by government development projects.

Rathna laughs easily, despite having been diagnosed with HIV. She only learned about her HIV status during her fifth month of pregnancy. Fortunately, counselors working with SVYM and Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII) were able to provide Rathna with the information, antiretroviral medication, and emotional support that she needed. SAATHII is an implementing partner in India for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF).

When we heard about Rathna’s story, her son tested negative for HIV.

Every week, counselors and community health workers, Nagaratha and Marjula ,visit Rathna, bringing her antiretroviral medications from the Vivekananda Memorial Hospital. The counselors also give Rathna money so that she can travel to the hospital for follow-up testing and treatment.

Rathna is of particular interest to the counselors because they worry that, as an ethnic minority, she may not have enough social support. Her only other family member in the village is a sister from whom she is estranged.

So far, Rathna has been diligent about following the HIV prevention and treatment protocols that her counselors have provided. When asked how she feels, Rathna shyly smiles and says, “Good … I take my medicine regularly.”

Just as the fences protects the fields from elephants, adherence to her antiretroviral medicine will keep Rathna healthy and her son HIV-free.