This entry is the first in a series of posts in which I will try to pass on some of the unexpected truths that I learned while in Kenya. If you learn something, please leave a comment and let us know!
Did you know two HIV-positive parents can give birth to an HIV-negative child?
I realized quickly upon arriving in Kenya that I had a lot to learn about AIDS, and this was of the truths that most surprised me. It stood in contrast to my understanding of HIV/AIDS, but it turns out to be completely true. Mother-to-child HIV transmission occurs in one of two ways:
1. The virus is passed through the mothers’ blood into the child’s bloodstream.
2. The virus is passed through the mothers’ breast milk into the child’s bloodstream.
Both the mother’s blood and breast milk carry the HIV virus, but the child is not born with the virus already in his bloodstream. In many cases in a place like Kenya, though, the mother will give birth in their home with a midwife because she can’t afford a visit to the hospital. This usually results in a longer birthing process with more bleeding and a great chance of blood contact between the mother and child, leading to infection. If the child makes it through this process without contracting the virus, though, they will often fall prey to the second scenario listed above. For poverty-stricken mothers without a healthy or regular diet, it is often difficult to produce enough breast milk to support the baby. This leads them to feed the baby solid food while breastfeeding, which creates tiny cuts and tears in the digestive system and allows the HIV virus to pass from the breast milk into the bloodstream.
The good news is that both of these scenarios are entirely preventable! If a woman gives birth in a hospital, the process is shortened considerably and the risk of infection through blood drops dramatically. If she breastfeeds exclusively for a period of time before switching entirely to other food sources, breast milk poses no threat to the child. Ensuring these things take place requires education and resources. Mothers need to know that going to a hospital and breastfeeding exclusively can prevent a lifetime of challenges and sickness for their child. They also need the resources to pay for a hospital visit and feed themselves enough to breastfeed exclusively – resources that seem small to us, but could be enormous barriers to a woman facing sickness, poverty, and rejection because of their HIV-status.
By the grace of God, CARE for AIDS is able to provide both the necessary education and resources to all of the pregnant women that come through our program. To date, we have seen over 60 babies born to HIV-positive parents, and 100% of them are currently testing negative. This is one of the most exciting parts of our ministry to me! Through simple teaching and basic resources for hospital delivery and food, we get the privilege of granting a baby the shot at a life without HIV/AIDS. These babies are the entirely innocent victims of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and we praise God for each one that doesn’t have to live his or her life under the shadow of sickness and stigma.
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