Support groups are a critical outlet for people living with HIV to express themselves, learn from others, and feel empowered. This is especially true for mothers living with HIV as they navigate the difficulties of childbirth and try to ensure that their babies remain HIV-free. That’s why in June 2015, with funding from PEPFAR through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ICAP at Columbia University provided mother mentors with a five-day intensive Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission (PMTCT) training in Adama, Ethiopia.
The mothers support group that received the training was drawn from ICAP-supported health facilities in the emerging regions, including Assosa Health Center in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia. Established in June 2015, the group started with just seven members providing peer-to-peer HIV support two days a week in a small tent in one corner of the health center. Eventually, the group secured a room within the PMTCT unit where they could meet in regularly. At each meeting, as mother mentors lead a discussion using ICAP’s PMTCT guidelines for pregnant and lactating mothers, members gather around to prepare and serve coffee—a longstanding tradition in Ethiopia.
“We haven’t had one HIV-positive child born since the group began,” said Bekema Tamene, a midwifery and support group coordinator at the Assosa Health Center. “That’s because we carefully manage and follow up with pregnant and lactating mothers to deliver and raise an HIV-negative child. It really speaks to the quality of HIV counseling, education, and follow-up services that are provided by mother mentors and the health workers in the PMTCT unit.”
Since the program was launched, the group has grown to 66 people, and, as of 2017, a total of 41 babies were born to mothers who had access to the support group, follow-up, and clinical assistance by the PMTCT unit. These children have all reached their second birthday HIV-negative, and another seven babies celebrated their first birthday free from HIV.
“My child celebrated his first birthday free of HIV one month ago, and that makes me feel like I am born again,” said Alemnesh Melaku, a mothers support group member.
“We have created a friendly atmosphere that enables mothers to develop awareness and self-value,” said Etalem Kibret, a mother mentor. “With ICAP’s support, we were able to organize weekly traditional coffee ceremonies. These promote social ties and inspire effective conversation among members of the group.” She added, “To encourage mothers, we organize Genfo ceremonies. Genfo is a local porridge dish offered to child-bearing mothers to help support a fast recovery from physical deterioration and pain. We also celebrate the birthdays of children who reach their first and second year free from HIV, presenting them with gifts to motivate other mothers to follow in others’ footsteps and keep their newborn babies HIV-free.”
The group is providing various services at the Assosa Health Center, ranging from home-based care for up to 45 days, to antiretroviral treatment follow-up for confirmed cases who are referred for the service. The support group also follows up with HIV-exposed infants and mothers lost to follow-up, providing health education and HIV counseling and facilitating linkage to community care. ICAP provided the group with registration forms, a registration logbook, a monthly reporting template, and a lost mothers follow-up tool to facilitate, document, and monitor their activities.
Mothers explained how the support group has helped them boldly fight and overcome cultural barriers. The support they received allowed them to access quality prenatal and postnatal care.
“I became familiar with the mothers support group when I came for prenatal care to Assosa Health Center two years ago,” said Alemnesh Melaku, a member of the group. “I am fortunate that I learned of my HIV status before it was too late to rescue my child from the virus. I have learned many things about HIV since I started attending the support group. My child celebrated his first birthday free of HIV one month ago, and that makes me feel like I am born again. Had it not been for the mothers support group, I wouldn’t be here with this grace and confidence with my healthy child.”