AIDS Killed My Mother’s Generation, But My Children Can Be AIDS-Free

The Huffington Post | June 25, 2014

Martha Cameron

Ambassador, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation

By age 23, I had lost several family members to the AIDS epidemic, and my home country of Zambia lost an entire generation. Nearly 700,000 Zambians had died by the year 2000, just 16 years after the first reported case of AIDS in the country. The disease still greatly affects Zambia today, as nearly a quarter of the population lives with HIV.

I am part of that 25 percent.

We have the opportunity to look forward and rebuild our country by supporting a new generation -- one that may grow up to be an AIDS-free generation. But doing so requires sharing information about life-saving services that can benefit millions of people around the globe.

In 2003, I learned I was HIV-positive on a return visit to Zambia. In that moment I felt entirely hopeless as my mother had just recently passed away, too. I had the support of my family and those that I worked with, but no guarantee for my future. Would I, too, be part of the lost generation in Zambia?

However, at that time the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) came to Africa. Through PEPFAR, I was able to receive the life-saving medication and treatment that had been out of reach for so many Zambians before. This miracle gave me a second chance at life, and I recognized how truly blessed I was.

A second miracle came when I met my husband, Andy, who fell in love with me despite my status.

We immediately knew that we wanted children, yet it was a scary decision. While many children in America are successfully born HIV-free to HIV-positive mothers, access to information on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) in Zambia lags behind.

Because I lived in a city in Zambia, with easy access to a hospital, my husband and I received more information about PMTCT than is traditionally available. I was successfully referred to a physician who could perform a C-section to ensure the health of my child.

The stigma of being HIV-positive prevents thousands of Zambian women from receiving PMTCT services and C-sections, despite its proven effectiveness in lessening transmission of HIV. The same stigma stops many mothers from continuing to take life-saving medications after the birth of their children for fear that others will learn they have HIV.

Despite these obstacles, my first son was born HIV-free in 2009. Soon after, my husband and I moved to America where we had our second son in 2011. In the United States, we found that information about PMTCT was easily available and many physicians were able to help ensure I had the safest pregnancy and delivery possible. When we got married we also adopted my youngest sister, Tamar, and served as legal guardians for the rest of my siblings who were a little older. My beautiful family was healthy and thriving.

That is why I work with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) -- I want this experience for every mother in Africa.

After learning about EGPAF, I quickly became involved, knowing that my sons' healthy births were thanks to its decades of work and advocacy. This May, EGPAF reached its 20 millionth woman with its life-saving services, which was a beautiful moment for me.

I saw the faces of women -- women across Zambia, women from my family, women whose lives had been touched by EGPAF. When I think of these 20 million women, I see their smiling faces.

Yet we continue to fight because there is still more to be done. While women in Zambia can now access PMTCT services in cities and through hospitals, thousands more suffer in villages throughout the country because they lack access to existing medications and services. These women need the support system that I had. We must ensure that their families and communities have the capacity to help and support them. With all the obligations and responsibilities of being a mother, no woman should also have to worry about receiving the life-saving treatment she and her child need.

Together with EGPAF, I am fighting for a world where no child has AIDS.