April 5, 2012
Last year, the UN set a target of eliminating new HIV infections among children by 2015. Dr. Mitch Besser, founder of the group "mothers2mothers," has been working toward that goal in South Africa since 1999. He notes that early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can cut the risk of mother-to-baby HIV transmission to 2 percent.
The University of Cape Town hired Besser, a Harvard-trained obstetrician, at a time when HIV testing and treatment were uncommon, and shame and denial were rampant. Besser noted the personal challenges he faced connecting to his patients.
"I'm white, I'm American, I speak English, I'm not going to be a mother, and I'm talking to women who have a different culture and are HIV-positive," said Besser. Also, the high volume of patients meant he had little time to spend with each to explain complicated drug regimens and advocate for behavior change.
Then in 2001, Besser hired four HIV-positive mothers to mentor and educate other patients about testing and caring for themselves and their children. He obtained a $7,000 Starr Foundation grant to bolster the program and cover the workers' stipends.
Mpho Mbhele embodies mothers2mothers' success. She went from waiting to die at home to becoming a fit and healthy site coordinator at the Ikhwezi Clinic in Somerset West, near Cape Town. "When I was told I had AIDS, I was scared," said Mbhele. "I was told, You're going to die,' nothing else, until I discovered mothers2mothers."
According to Besser, the organization now operates in seven African countries, reached 242,000 newly expectant and HIV-positive mothers in 2011, and is looking to expand into government advocacy for the mentor-mother model of health care provision.
For more information, visit www.m2m.org.