In 2008, Anita François was stunned to learn that she was HIV-positive just as she was about to give birth to her third child. She was traumatized by the news, and told a younger sister who couldn’t keep the secret. Discriminatory reactions double the young mother’s grief. One morning, as she crossed the courtyard of Hôpital Saint-Damien to pick up her antiviral medication, she crossed the path of someone close to her. His gaze weighed so heavily that Anita decided to stop participating in the HIV program.
During this downtime, her health deteriorated. The program’s health workers went to make her aware of the need to re-enroll. Aware of the situation, she decided to take part in the program again. “I told myself that my health comes first and I decided to come back,” she recalls. Now a mother of five, only her son Anderson has been infected by the virus. She was able to protect her last two children thanks to the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) program at Hôpital Saint-Damien, she admits.
For 16 years, Anita and Anderson have benefited from the program, which enables them to enjoy a healthy, reproductive life. This requires appropriate medical follow-up and disease management to maintain good health. On June 9, at around 9 a.m., while the sun was already shining over Tabarre, they crossed the barrier at Hôpital Saint-Damien to take part in the early celebration of National Children’s Day.
Activities last until three in the afternoon. Parents are grouped together for awareness-raising sessions, while children take part in fun and recreational games. “Let’s keep taking care of children”, reads the message on participants’ fluorescent green T-shirts. This message echoes the national theme of the Institut de bien-être social et de recherches (IBESR), the government agency responsible for social protection and social defense in Haiti.
According to Daniel Sévère, Project Coordinator for the Saint-Damien HIV/AIDS and community health program, parents attended a conference on the amount of screen time they should devote to their children. They were also made aware of the need for continuity in the way children are cared for. Three parents were honored for their self-sacrifice in caring for their children.
Saint-Damien to the rescue of HIV-positive women and children
The HIV program is one of Hôpital Saint-Damien’s flagship programs, aimed at ensuring quality of life for children. It was set up in 2009, but for the previous four years the hospital had been providing care, within its means, to children tested positive for HIV.
“Father Fréchette was concerned that Haiti had no Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission program. In 2009, the hospital and two others shared a pilot PMTCT implementation project supported by PEPFAR. Today, Saint-Damien is the second pediatric cohort in the country to treat HIV-infected children,” says Daniel Sévère.
The Saint-Damien HIV program provides medical and psychosocial care for 192 children who are on ARVs and others who have been exposed to the virus. A wide range of professionals, including doctors, psychologists, nurses and social workers, provide day-to-day support. Daniel Sévère joined this team of professionals as a psychologist when the program was launched. “I’ve seen children grow up who, in the past, no longer believed in their future or in achieving their dreams. Today, they are useful professionals in Haitian society,” says Sévère.
To ensure better care, Hôpital Saint-Damien set up a family-centered clinic at least five years ago, to guarantee a better quality of life through comprehensive care, including a psychosocial approach. According to Mr. Sévère, 80% of children living with HIV received it through vertical transmission, i.e. from their mother. Through this clinic, parents are made aware, along with their children, of the importance of respecting follow-up methods to ensure the health of the whole family.
Affected by the socio-political crisis
Haiti has been experiencing a chronic socio-political crisis for several years. In addition to the recurrent natural disasters that strike the country, the impoverishment of the population and political crises, Haitians are facing an unprecedented situation of insecurity. Gangs are increasingly controlling territories, engaging in acts of violence and preventing the movement of citizens. “This situation is hampering HIV program activities”, notes Daniel Sévère.
Since 2020, program activities have been organized solely on the Saint-Damien Hospital runway. Covid-19, followed by the country’s unhealthy situation, forced the end of the summer retreat that the hospital and Worldwide Orphans regularly organized for families benefiting from the program. “Most of these beneficiaries come from poor neighborhoods, which are generally home to gangs. This prevents the movement of beneficiaries to our center, but also of our agents responsible for raising awareness,” continues Mr. Sévère.
This political crisis has affected Aneta François’ business. She is a craftswoman and used to sell her products to tourists. “I can no longer sell anything to the point where I can no longer pay my rent. A friend has taken in my family at Poste Marchand. We’re currently living in a single room. Since then, my son has refused to take his antivirals, because he’s ashamed of the way people look at him”, reveals Aneta.
Daniel Sévère remains optimistic despite the country’s worsening socio-political situation, because, he says, the HIV program has withstood several crises in its 16 years of existence. He recalls the earthquake of January 12, 2010, which caused casualties even among staff. The service remained dysfunctional for a time, but soon recovered. For him, the HIV program will continue to save lives beyond this crisis. Hôpital Saint-Damien believes that children are the future. It is our responsibility to protect and educate them. We must continue to work together to ensure a better future for our children.
P.S. Aneta François and Anderson are assumed names.