Caring for mothers and babies, preventing the spread of HIV

In Nigeria, an MCC-supported hospital is helping mothers who are HIV positive avoid transmitting the virus to their infants.

When Martha Peter came to Faith Alive Foundation’s clinic and hospital in Jos, Nigeria — pregnant and newly diagnosed as HIV positive — she was desperate.

She had been living in a camp where she and others from northeast Nigeria settled in 2015 after fleeing the militant group, Boko Haram, but her husband forced her to leave him and the camp when she discovered she had HIV.

Her last baby had died and Peter was afraid she would lose this child too. She and her other four children came to live with her sister, who brought Peter to Faith Alive, in the city of Jos.

She remembers crying as she entered one of the clinic’s two waiting rooms where patients were praying and singing together, as part of the devotional time that starts each clinic day. She couldn’t imagine how she could live with HIV.

Dr. Mark Stephen, a staff physician at Faith Alive, had good news for her and her unborn baby.

Between 2009 and 2016, 98 per cent of the 1,122 pregnant mothers with HIV who delivered their babies at Faith Alive’s hospital did not transmit HIV to their babies during pregnancy or birth.

To make sure her baby would be free of HIV too, Stephen told her, she must follow his instructions, starting with taking the free antiretroviral (ARV) medication at the same time every day.

Faith Alive would also provide all her prenatal care, delivery at the hospital and follow-up treatment for her and the baby free of charge.

“They were so kind to me,” Peter says. “For me to have a baby that was (HIV) negative with my situation, it impressed me. I’ve never expected this would happen to me. I was wondering, ‘What kind of hospital is this?’”

It’s the kind of hospital that wraps its arms around the poorest and most vulnerable people — both Muslim and Christian — in and around Jos, offering them free health care, health classes, counselling, home care and medication.

It’s also the kind of hospital that doesn’t just meet physical needs.

Faith Alive Foundation, the Christian organization that runs the hospital and clinic, also offers vocational and biblical discipleship training and emergency food and lodging. Orphans and vulnerable children are assigned staff mentors and foster families, and Faith Alive provides education and social activities.

Ever since Dr. Christian Isichei established Faith Alive in 2003, MCC has partnered with the foundation, supporting its holistic ministry. Currently, MCC’s support includes treatment for pregnant mothers with HIV and their babies as well as vocational training for the mothers and other patients in need.

Vocational training is essential, Isichei says, because healing the body is not enough to help a person thrive. “Disease leads to poverty. Poverty leads to disease. You have to break the cycle. If you empower somebody, you are breaking poverty.”

Zipporah Moses came to Faith Alive for care 13 years ago, regaining her health and eventually finding a career. After attending Faith Alive’s sewing classes and receiving a sewing machine upon graduation, she now sells dresses for a living and teaches sewing to other patients at Faith Alive.

Zipporah Moses has both good health and a job because of Faith Alive’s intervention. When she came to Faith Alive 13 years ago with HIV, she wasn’t sure she would survive.

At that time, when a sporadic drug supply limited treatment options, Isichei wasn’t sure either.

The most important thing Moses could do, Isichei told her, was to strengthen her immune system with a healthy diet. As she grew stronger, he got her started in Faith Alive’s sewing class. She finished it in one year and helped teach the class the second year. Then she launched her own business with the sewing machine Faith Alive gave her when she graduated.

Today, she makes a living sewing dresses; each one sells for about $15, using customers’ fabric. She also teaches other patients from Faith Alive how to sew, embroider and applique in addition to basic literacy skills they’ll need to record orders and measurements.

“My life is beautiful now,” she says. She is able to pay school fees for her younger brothers and sisters and has been able to build a house for her parents in their village. She is now on ARV medication and she and her husband recently had an HIV-free baby girl, whose pictures are posted on the bulletin board in her shop, along with pictures of graduates from her class.

Fathers can play a significant role in helping a pregnant mother’s chances of having a virus-free baby, says Caroline Onwuezobe, chief executive officer.

With that support, women are more likely to withstand stigma and to feel like they can ignore directives from friends or family, such as a mother-in-law, that counter the doctor’s orders.

Faith Alive works to involve men more closely — providing breakfast and early appointments for couples. “Men, when they come here, they listen to the health talks; they listen to the counselling,” Onwuezobe says. “They say this is my baby and we decided to do the right thing.”

Blessing Irmiya Dabwor says her husband, Jerry Irmiya Dabwor, has been a constant support to her ever since their prenuptial HIV tests at Faith Alive revealed that Blessing was HIV positive and Jerry was not.

"Whatever burden you have when you come, you go out with ease and joy."

Through health counselling at Faith Alive, Jerry learned that it’s important for him to make sure Blessing takes her ARVs consistently and to help with household chores. “I know . . . not to put too much work on her. Depression and stress can disturb her; so definitely, I have to come and to help her.”

Faith Alive counsellors walked the couple through the steps they needed to take to reduce the chances Jerry would contract HIV and, when they wanted to have a baby, to make sure the virus wasn’t transmitted to the baby.

For Blessing and Jerry, the best result of their involvement with Faith Alive came in 2016 when their daughter Joy was born without HIV. Joy responded to the medication that the doctors gave her at birth to block the growth of HIV and to a different medicine that protected her from getting the virus from her mother’s breast milk. A year later, she and her father were still free of the virus.

“We were overjoyed. We still have the joy in us presently,” Jerry says, as he holds his daughter.

Blessing Irmiya Dabwor, her husband Jerry Irmiya Dabwor and their daughter Joy meet with Dr. Christian Isichei, founder and director of Faith Alive. The care Faith Alive provides has helped Blessing, who is HIV positive, maintain her health and give birth to a daughter who is HIV negative.

Part of their happiness comes from their experience at Faith Alive, Blessing and Jerry agree. They were listened to so well, Blessing says, remembering how the doctor would call them on the phone and sit down to take time to explain things to them.

“Faith Alive is like a second church,” Jerry says. “Whatever burden you have when you come, you go out with ease and joy.”