May 12, 2021

The Importance of Exclusive Breastfeeding

Teddy talks with breastfeeding client before COVID
Teddy talks with breastfeeding client before COVID

At mothers2mothers (m2m), we encourage and support our clients—both those living with HIV and those who are HIV-negative—to exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least six months. We asked m2m Spokeswoman and Community Mentor Mother, Teddy Atim from Uganda, why giving babies only breast milk is important for the women we serve, and what challenges they must overcome to do so. With the World Health Organization (WHO) recommending that mothers continue to breastfeed their babies even if infected with or exposed to COVID-19, since there is currently no evidence that the virus is transmitted through breastmilk, we also asked Teddy what advice Mentor Mothers are giving breastfeeding mothers to protect their babies from exposure to the new coronavirus at this time. 

Q: Why is exclusive breastfeeding so important for women living with HIV? 
Exclusive breastfeeding means giving only breastmilk for the first six months. No food. No traditional medicine. This is important for women living with HIV to reduce the risk of babies contracting the virus. Breastmilk does contain HIV but the baby’s gut has a lining that protects them from getting infected. When a women gives anything else, be it milk, food, traditional medicine, or even water, it can cause tiny cuts in the baby’s gut where HIV can enter the blood stream. In order to keep their babies safe, women living with HIV who choose to breastfeed have to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, in addition to taking their antiretroviral medicine (ARVs). 

Also, breastmilk is one of their healthiest foods for babies. It is nutritious and it helps boost the baby’s immune system. It keeps the baby’s brain active and really helps strengthen the bond between mother and baby. Most importantly, it is free so women do not need to worry about using the little money they have at home in buying expensive formula milk.  

We actually encourage all women, regardless of their HIV status, to exclusively breastfeed. Some people think that exclusive breastfeeding is only good for women who are living with HIV. The truth is that, it is good for everyone. Sadly, most women are still exposed to HIV and if they become infected while they are breastfeeding, that would put their babies at risk of becoming infected too. That’s one of the reasons why we advise it for all of our clients. 

Q: How have you adapted the advice you give to women now that there is COVID-19? 
With COVID-19, we all know that everyone is at risk of getting infected—small babies can get infected too. As Mentor Mothers, we give the same messages to our clients as we do to everyone else. But we know that a breastfeeding mothers cannot isolate themselves from their small babies, so we teach them how to breastfeed safely in line with the WHO guidelines. We encourage them to wear masks while breastfeeding if they have any symptoms. We also remind them to wash their hands regularly for 20 seconds, especially before touching the baby and breastfeeding, and regularly clean surfaces around them.

Q: Tell us about your experience breastfeeding your children and challenges you had to overcome to make that possible? 
I breastfed all my children. The first one was just after I was diagnosed with HIV. I had only disclosed to my husband and my in-laws since I was living with them. I went to visit my family and my grandmother was asking many questions about why I was starving the baby. She really wanted to give him porridge. Due to how old she was and how badly my mother-in-law reacted when she first found out about my status, I was not comfortable disclosing to my grandmother. 

I realised I had to tell her when one day. I had gone to fetch water and came back to find my grandmother preparing a small bowl of porridge for my son. I sat her down and explained that I am living with HIV and that if my baby ate the porridge, he would be at risk of getting infected by HIV in my breastmilk. Even though she did not really understand, at least she knew why I was saying no to porridge and she allowed me to continue exclusively breastfeeding. But after that, I would take my baby with me whenever I left the house, unless he was asleep. 

Teddy with her children: Winnie, Kasons, Precious
Teddy with her children: Winnie, Kasons, Precious
Apr 15, 2021

No One Is Safe Until We Are All Safe

Babalwa getting vaccinated in Cape Town, SA
Babalwa getting vaccinated in Cape Town, SA

It’s hard to believe that just over a year has passed since South Africa, mothers2mothers’ (m2m) headquarters, implemented strict lockdown measures as COVID-19 spread across the globe, disrupting our lives in unimaginable ways.

Today, while our “new normal” no longer feels “new,” there still is nothing “normal” about it. That is certainly the case in sub-Saharan Africa, which for the last several months has experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths, fueled by a new variant of the virus, reportedly 50% more contagious.

The 1,700 women employed by m2m as frontline health workers are more determined than ever to keep women and families safe and healthy in the face of this recent surge, but it is not easy. Their clients are both tired of the virus and incredibly scared—making them reluctant to follow safety protocols or too frightened to go to the health center for services and treatment. Many families are struggling just to survive in the face of soaring unemployment.

Exacerbating these challenges is the fact that relief has been slow in coming. While millions of people across North America and Europe have been vaccinated, fewer than two-thirds of African countries have received small quantities of vaccine and even fewer have begun administering them. While we are happy to report that ~1/3 of our frontline staff have been among those vaccinated by now, we are frustrated at this slow pace of progress. According to The People’s Vaccine lobby group, 9 out of 10 people in the poorest countries will not receive a COVID-19 vaccine this year.

View from the frontlines
We asked several Mentor Mothers to share what they are seeing on the frontlines and what keeps them going. As you’ll see in their stories below—not only are the health services and support Mentor Mothers provide their clients more critical and urgent than ever, so is getting access to the vaccine. The rapid spread of COVID-19 around the globe last year showed just how interconnected we are. It will not be possible to contain the virus and return to some semblance of the “old normal” we all long for until everyone—even in the most vulnerable and marginalized communities—is vaccinated. No one is safe until we are all safe.

“The first wave of COVID-19 had little negative impact in Lesotho, but the second wave has hit home really hard. We have lost many people to the virus. With all of the personal losses, Mentor Mothers still need to bravely face the invisible enemy on the frontlines. What gives me hope is the support that Mentor Mothers have at mothers2mothers. We feel so valuable. While other NGOs have been forced to close down or reduce salaries, m2m is still helping us put food on the table for our families, even in this hardest of times. So that keeps us going and gives us the strength to go forward.” – Relebohile, Site Coordinator, Lesotho

“The second wave of COVID-19 has been so difficult for us in the rural villages. Villagers are scared and are starting to lose hope. Everyone has been affected, even students are not allowed to go to school until the vaccines are introduced and the wait for the vaccines is long. Also, not helpful to the situation is the lack of access to educational information regarding COVID-19 in rural areas. However, as Mentor Mothers, we live in the same communities and play a role in bridging that gap, and support and educate our clients to get the health services they need.” – Teddy, Site Coordinator, Uganda

“My biggest challenge is that people in the community are fatigued and exhausted. Some are even saying that they are tired of this COVID-19 and are discouraged to comply with the health protocols. But we as Mentor Mothers are there to encourage them and tell them that tomorrow will be better than today. I am proud that my clients continue to adhere to their HIV treatment with our support and encouragement.” – Juliana, Community Site Coordinator, Ghana

Relebohile, Lesotho
Relebohile, Lesotho
Teddy, Uganda
Teddy, Uganda
Juliana, Ghana
Juliana, Ghana
Feb 1, 2021

The Brighter Side of 2020

This time last year, few could have imagined the global disruption and challenges that lay ahead. Yet, amid the fear and hardship, there have been bright spots that have kept us going and given us hope for a healthier tomorrow.

At mothers2mothers (m2m), our commitment to the over one million women, children, and adolescents who depend on our services each year has not wavered. We are proud and grateful that we have been able to evolve and grow our program in significant ways to meet their needs while protecting the jobs of the 1,700 women living with HIV we employ as Mentor Mothers across ten countries. Today, let’s focus on the year’s good news even as we look forward to returning to a greater sense of normalcy once COVID-19 is contained.

Our top 10 highlights of 2020:

#1 An Effective Emergency Response: When COVID-19 began spreading across the African continent, we acted quickly to protect our frontline health workers—who were designated as essential workers throughout the pandemic—while making sure that our clients continue to receive support and services to stay healthy and safe. This included expanding our eServices support provided by phone, a WhatsApp-based platform, and text messages when it is impossible to meet our clients in person, and making sure Mentor Mothers are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE). And, it’s working. Ninety-eight percent (98%) of the pregnant and breastfeeding women living with HIV we reached through eServices in Q3 adhered to their anti-retroviral treatment.

#2 Tech for Good: It was against this backdrop that m2m accelerated the development and launch of the Virtual Mentor Mother Platform (VMMP)—an interactive tool run on the WhatsApp messaging platform that enables users in nine countries to access vital health information and service referrals on COVID-19 and other important health topics in their preferred language.

#3 Now We Are 10: m2m launched our program in Angola and Tanzania in 2020, bringing the total number of our country operations to 10. Together with the start of operations in Ghana at the end of 2019, we surpassed our strategic goal of reaching two new countries between 2018 and 2021...almost two years early. m2m nurse and Mentor Mother in Lesotho A nurse & HIV Testing Services Mentor Mother crossing a river to get to a hard-to-reach community in Lesotho.

#4 Clinical Care Milestone: m2m officially began employing nurses to work alongside Mentor Mothers in Lesotho to help clients overcome barriers to accessing vital health services. Providing clinical services, aligned with global policy best practices, was one of the goals laid out in our Strategic Plan.

#5 Service Innovation: For the first time in our 19-year history, thanks to support from the Medtronic Foundation, Mentor Mothers began providing services to prevent and manage hypertension, diabetes, and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). This service innovation is critical—NCDs are a large and growing public health issue in sub-Saharan Africa, especially for individuals living with HIV, and they increase the risk of serious health challenges from COVID-19.

#6 A Year of Growth and Impact: m2m was excited to share the results of our 2019 Annual Programme Review, which showed continued growth and impact, and demonstrated how we are advancing the United Nations Global Goals of creating good health and wellbeing for all, and an HIV-free future. 2019 also marked the sixth year in a row that m2m achieved virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV for our enrolled clients. WOW panel discussion m2m Mozambique Country Director Ilda Kuleba (upper right) joins panelists virtually at the WOW Global 24 Festival.

#7 Sharing Our Story on the World Stage: m2m participated virtually in a number of global events this year, including sharing our work and impact at the 23rd International AIDS Conference; and joining timely and important discussions at the WOW Global 24 Festival, the first-ever free 24-hour online festival uniting women and girls across the world. Our work was also featured in leading media outlets, including National Public Radio (United States); Marie Claire (United Kingdom); and BBC Africa.

#8 Cycle2Zero@Home: Supporters around the world biked, walked, ran, and rowed for our signature Cycle2Zero fundraising event in October, which pivoted from an in-person cycle through one of the countries we operate in, to a virtual challenge due to COVID-19. Fortunately, this did not put a damper on enthusiasm, with participants covering over four million kilometers and raising more vital funds than ever before.

#9 Progress throughout the Year: Even in the face of not one, but two pandemics—HIV and COVID-19—our work did not slow down. All of our country programs demonstrated continued development and impact, which is captured in our Quarterly Impact Reports.

#10 YOU: We are incredibly grateful for the flexible support of existing and new donors and partners who helped us meet critical emergency pandemic funding needs over the course of the year. Your partnership and unwavering support has been invaluable, and your generosity has been even more incredible given that you have faced challenges of your own. 

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