27 July 2017

Cameroon: Peer Educators Promote HIV Testing for Mothers, Babies

Photo: UNICEF
(file photo).

As the world's AIDS experts meet at a conference this week in Paris, health workers in Cameroon still struggle to identify and treat HIV-positive mothers and babies.

Myriam Anang lost her husband and three-month-old baby two years ago to HIV. Now, Anang works as a peer educator in a government-initiated program to help others become better informed.

She was among the speakers in northern Cameroon at a gathering addressing AIDS and HIV.

Anang said that when she tries to persuade sick villagers to go with their babies for HIV screening, they argue that they are not ill, but bewitched by their relatives. She said she knows three men who died of HIV, yet their wives have refused to take their babies to the hospital, claiming the families are suffering from a spell.

Anang did not have prenatal care. She delivered her baby at a traditional birth attendant's home. It was only afterward, when she became sick, that she went to a hospital and found out she had HIV.

In 2016, the government found that seven out of 10 women in the northern part of the country were not visiting hospitals when they were pregnant. About a third of those who did go to a hospital never returned for postnatal visits, even if they had tested positive for HIV.

The job of the peer educators is to identify pregnant women in their villages and encourage them to get medical care, even reminding them of their hospital appointments.

The government says that since the start of the program, seven out of 10 pregnant women identified by peer educators now visit a hospital.

Obstacles for care

The results of a mother's HIV test take a day. However, newborns need a special screening, and the bloodwork can only be processed a thousand kilometers away in the capital Yaounde, says Georgette Wekang, head of HIV Control and People Living with AIDS in Cameroon's Ministry of Health.

Wekang says it takes between six and seven months for the results to be brought back from Yaounde and that, at times, those results are delivered after the babies have died. In addition, she says, fear of stigma prevents some women from returning with their babies for follow-up appointments.

The U.N. Children's Fund estimates that in northern Cameroon, 40 percent of HIV-positive children do not receive treatment.

Health officials say it is important to begin treatment as soon as possible after diagnosis.

The government of Cameroon has begun trials with new testing machines to reduce the time parents must wait for a baby's test results. While antiretroviral drugs are provided for free, patients are requested to pay for laboratory tests.

In northern Cameroon, parents are told they can take their children to the town of Garoua for treatment. However, Mireille Yaki, the medical officer in charge of the hospital, says the facility regularly runs short of the antiretroviral drugs, and many parents stop bringing their children for treatment.

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