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An HIV infection weakens immunity, worse for pregnant women. Plan India’s Project AHANA is helping HIV positive pregnant women stay healthy.
“I can’t forget the sight of a nine months pregnant HIV infected woman who looked like a skeleton,” says Yasmin, part of Plan India’s AHANA Project helping HIV positive women lead a healthy life. “She was pleading to the doctors that she just wants to save her child from the lifelong stigma of being HIV positive. Alas, she died during the birthing process along with the child. That was the day, I resolved that I shall dedicate my life to ensure all help to these women. No woman should go through the state of the woman I witnessed that day.”
Mother to child transmission is a major cause of HIV in children. More than 50% of India’s pregnancies occur in villages and blocks, where HIV testing in health facilities is a challenge.
While most of us were locked inside our homes when the country went into complete lockdown due to COVID, there were a few warriors who were working day and night. Amongst several frontline workers and health care professionals, there were the members of project AHANA from Plan India who had a major responsibility on their shoulders. To ensure that the lockdown doesn’t disrupt the supply of essential life-saving drugs for HIV positive pregnant women. A slight miss could mean a threat to the life of both the mother and the unborn child.
Meet Yasmin and Roopkatha who have ensured every help and assistance to these women, even if it has meant going beyond their call of duty in these past few months.
Roopkatha is a Project Officer with Project AHANA in charge of the two districts of Assam, Karimganj and Dima Hasao. She and her team have been helping many HIV positive pregnant women registered at the Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) Centre in the district adjoining to Karimganj.
The medicine is essential to be taken as prescribed for preventing mother to child transmission of the disease.
Roopkatha and her team had a daunting task when the lockdown was announced in March this year. She says, “When the lockdown happened, we were clueless; we were concerned about how the medicines would reach the women because there is no alternative. With most health facilities being identified as COVID-19 isolation centres and normal health services stopped, it was a big challenge for us to ensure pregnant HIV positive women from underserved communities get regular antenatal care, and ensure uninterrupted treatment.”
Due to the lockdown, with the mobility impacted, Roopkatha and her team had to make emergency arrangements.
“We made lists about how much ART each patient had, we did meticulous planning for streamlining the procurement and, for several patients we delivered medicines at the doorstep even when it meant walking several miles,” she shares.
Yasmin, a member of the AHANA project from UP, reminisces about a critical delivery, “One HIV positive pregnant woman who was being followed up by me was due for delivery in last week of March. This happened to be in lockdown then. Keeping this in mind, my team member Khalid and I made arrangements for an emergency pass so that if the need arises, we should be able to support her and ensure safe institutional delivery. With such meticulous planning, the delivery finally happened on 31st March.”
It didn’t end there. Due to some complications, the condition of the newborn was critical. Yasmin arranged for close medical observation of the baby as well as ensured that the father could procure PPE and other essentials, while being with the mother and the child along with ensuring post-partum lactation help for the mother.
Friend and confidante
Medicine is just one part of the help they provide. Both Yasmin and Roopkatha also provide emotional support like a friend and a confidante. Both of them have made themselves available for 24 hours for these patients during the lockdown.
Shares Yasmin, “For these women, we are more than a family. They get so close to us because of this. That trust and confidence that we are there means so much. One of our tasks is also to comfort them that HIV is just a disease and can be managed if the medicine is taken properly. Though our job is day time we make ourselves available to them across 24 hours.”
Maintaining the privacy of these women
Another challenge that both of them have, is to ensure complete privacy of these women, whom they call their clients. With the HIV/AIDS stigmas holding strong in society, a lot of discrimination is prevalent on the ground.
Shares Yasmin, “We have to ensure that not even the family members get to know that the woman is HIV positive, there are a lot of stigmas attached.” I am amazed. I ask her how do they do that. After all, the communities that these women belong to are small and close-knit.
To which Yasmin smiles and answers, “Didi ho jaata hai (It is possible didi). We present ourselves as health representatives from the hospital who are there to educate pregnant women about vaccinations, precautions, and other important information about the delivery process. Sometimes we have to call these women outside and speak to them. But respecting their privacy is of supreme importance.”
Project AHANA by Plan India has been the light for several women. It has transformed lives of women diagnosed with HIV, from a nightmare full of discrimination and fear to one of hope. One where she can also aspire for good health for herself and her baby through the support of health warriors like Yasmin and Roopkatha.
Roopkatha shares this about why it is important to spread more awareness and help these women. “A child who gets this infection from his mother will remain stigmatized all through their life. People will not think that he/she got it from their mother but everyone will believe that it was due to multiple partners. So, we have to ensure that no child of HIV infected woman gets it from their mother.”
Both Yasmin and Roopkatha share with me how gratifying it is to change the lives of these women, most of whom come to them in a very bad state. Handholding them through a medicine schedule as well as constant counselling changes them.
“When I take care of these women all throughout pregnancy, get their vaccinations and medicines on time, and then to see the child as negative is so gratifying,” says Yasmin. “No joy can match that of seeing the children of HIV positive women healthy and HIV negative.”
Indeed, both Roopkatha and Yasmin exemplify that service to mankind is service to God. More power to both of them and to Project AHANA which is empowering health warriors like them to save the lives of thousands of HIV infected women and children.
Plan India’s project AHANA, a national programme working towards an AIDS-free generation focusses on increasing Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission (PPTCT) service uptake among women in most marginalized communities in India.
Mother to child transmission is a major route of HIV infection among children. To stem the tide, the National Health Mission has committed to providing HIV screening services to all pregnant women as part of the essential Antenatal Care package.
Project AHANA is working relentlessly in 14 states of India to serve as a bridge between HIV positive people and HIV drugs in this crisis.
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