PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti–(ENEWSPF)–3 March 2010 – Jeanne (not her real name) sat on a mattress in her tent in a makeshift settlement for displaced people that has sprung up in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. As the afternoon sun burned through the plastic walls of the tent, she told her story.
Jeanne is 28 years old, HIV-positive and six months pregnant. On 12 January, the day a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, she was walking home from the market. Her first thought was for her unborn baby, and she broke her finger protecting herself from a falling wall. Jeanne lost almost everything in the earthquake: her father, her partner and her livelihood. But she didn’t lose her baby.
“Have you thought about a name?” I asked her.
“No, I can’t think. I haven’t had the capacity to think after the earthquake. I am disturbed, confused,” she said.
Another perilous loss
Crucially, Jeanne also lost her vital anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment when her house was destroyed. Fortunately, some days later, she managed to receive the medication in a clinic. The treatment is given to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Interruption of ARV therapy has been a concern for many pregnant women living with HIV in Haiti after the earthquake.
Jeanne found out she was HIV-positive in June 2006. She found out about ARV treatment through SEROvie, a non-governmental organization supported by UNICEF, and started receiving treatment in a private clinic, where her confidentiality was ensured.
As she has now lost her job, Jeanne can’t afford the treatment any longer. She fears going to the Port-au-Prince General Hospital for treatment and exposing her HIV-positive status publicly.
According to Haiti’s Ministry of Health, there are 120,000 people living with HIV in the country. Some 63,000 of them are women, 7,000 are pregnant and 8,500 are children. The incidence of HIV among adolescents is alarmingly high – particularly among young girls, who are being infected at twice the rate of boys.
Preventing HIV transmission
Since 2006, UNICEF, through the NGO Partners in Health, has been supporting a PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmission) programme in Haiti’s Central Plateau, where over 2,000 women have been treated. The agency also supports a range of services, from infant diagnosis to paediatric and adolescent HIV/AIDS services, at the Gheskio Centre, a major outpatient HIV/AIDS clinic in Port-au-Prince.
UNICEF is working to ensure that HIV-positive Haitians keep receiving medical care, and that those taking ARV drugs do not discontinue their treatment. It will continue to support the Ministry of Health in expanding PMTCT services, with a focus on rural areas. And it will remain actively involved in HIV-prevention activities targeting adolescents, in partnership with local NGOs.
After telling her story, Jeanne emerged from the heat of her tent. In May, she will give birth to a new family member. For her sake and the sake of that child, she hopes to continue receiving the treatment they so desperately need.