Irene Nkosi describes her life in two halves, with the first half being “as bad as life can be.” As a young girl in South Africa, Irene experienced abuse, neglect, and sexual violence, leaving her HIV-positive and a young single mother.
When Irene learned she was HIV-positive, she explained, “I was heart-broken and frustrated. I wasn’t educated about HIV. I feared for my life. I hoped my family and neighbors would understand, but I was isolated and called names.”
In the midst of her isolation, Irene learned about mothers2mothers, a PEPFAR-funded organization committed to ending pediatric AIDS and improving the health of mothers and their families.
Irene started working for the organization as a mentor mother, teaching mothers in her community how to protect their health and have HIV-free children. Irene said joining mothers2mothers restored her self-esteem and confidence.
“Sharing what I’ve learned about HIV with my family has played a massive role in removing the stigma they had placed on me,” she said. “I am happy to say my family has come to accept me and my HIV status.”
As a mentor mother and community educator, Irene says the second half of her life has been a different story – one filled with empowerment and love.
Through her work, she has helped women in her community get tested for HIV and lead full, healthy lives with their children. Irene and her new husband, who is also HIV-positive, welcomed an HIV-free baby girl into the world.
“The support and love I received while pregnant was so different,” she said. “I knew everything I had to do to protect my baby from infection.”
When a pregnant woman is HIV-positive, she needs support and care during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and breastfeeding because she can pass the virus to her baby at any of these stages.
By following World Health Organization guidelines, many mothers like Irene are giving birth to babies without the worries of an HIV diagnosis.
Irene and her husband named their baby daughter Nothando, which means “love.” Irene explained, “The little girls in my family have the love I was missing in my life when I was their age. And they have a mother they can be proud of.”
How can pregnant women make sure their babies are HIV-free?
World Health Organization guidelines recommend that upon testing positive for HIV, a pregnant woman should start taking antiretroviral medications right away and continue taking them throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding to prevent HIV transmission to her baby.
She should continue taking medications for the rest of her life to maintain her health and avoid giving the virus to sexual partners. As soon as possible after birth, the infant of an HIV-positive mother should start receiving medications for at least six weeks.
HIV tests should be performed when the baby is 4-to-6 weeks old and at age 18 months. If being breastfed, the child should be tested when breastfeeding ends. The type of testing varies depending on the age of the infant.