How One Teacher Extends His Lessons Beyond the Classroom
Advocacy In rural Zimbabwe, Patrick and Mildred Makontos are teaching their neighbors that HIV is not a death sentence and that transmission to children is preventable.
Patrick and Mildred Makontos have been married for 25 years and live in Shurugwi, a rural village in the center of Zimbabwe. Both are living with HIV and are active HIV/AIDS advocates. Patrick, 49, recently competed in a beauty contest for HIV-positive men and was crowned Mr. ARV Zimbabwe.
Out in the open
“We discuss our problems freely,” says Patrick, who teaches agriculture at Gare High School. “Even at the workplace, we are very comfortable discussing our problems together. Some people are dying because they cannot disclose. We must continue to educate others, because there are others who are continuing to stigmatize.”
Patrick tested positive for HIV in 2003 and was immediately initiated onto antiretroviral (ARV) medication. He had to pay for his ARVs himself at that time, and in Patrick’s words, “They were damn expensive.”
Patrick received very little support from his workplace and his community. “They told me to resign and to go home and wait for your grave,” Patrick says.
Mildred tested for HIV in 2004 and learned that she was positive. Unlike her husband, Mildred never became ill. At first she was very resistant to accepting her status. “I was so scared. I can’t explain how I felt,” Mildred says. “My daughter counseled me, and she encouraged me to accept my status.”
All of the Makontos’ children are HIV-negative.
“When I learned that I was HIV-positive, people were discriminating against me in my area,” says Mildred. “People were not receiving me very well. But after some time the community eventually accepted our status. We started talking to other community members, and we started support groups.”
After several years on treatment, the Makontos decided to have another child. They have three other children, now 24, 22, and 17. Through the information they received at their local clinic about prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT), the Makontos knew it was possible for HIV-positive parents to give birth to an HIV-negative child.
"The neighbors came to visit so I showed them the result. The community learned that an HIV-positive mother could give birth to an HIV-negative baby. So the communities are learning from us.”
“When our CD4 counts were above 500 [which reduced the chance of HIV transmission], we started planning for the baby,” says Mildred, who is now 42. “When I realized I was pregnant, I went with my husband to the local clinic to book at ANC [antenatal clinic]. He has always supported me. We were supporting each other, and we knew that if we take our drugs we will produce an HIV-negative baby.”
After delivery, Mildred was shown how to breastfeed in the context of HIV. She was informed about the importance of adhering to antiretroviral therapy while breastfeeding and to be alert for sores on her breasts or sores on the baby’s mouth—which can increase risk of HIV transmission. Mildred breastfed her baby exclusively before introducing solid foods at six months. When she was two years old the Makontos’ baby, Nokutenda, tested negative for HIV.
“I was so happy,” says Mildred. The [neighbors] came to visit so I showed them the result. The community learned that an HIV-positive mother could give birth to an HIV-negative baby. So the communities are learning from us.”
Over the years the Makontos have become leaders in their community and have greatly expanded the number of HIV/AIDS support groups in their area.
“We are supporting each other,” Mildred explains. “Some are doing agriculture; some are doing sewing. When we sell our wares, we save money to support orphans. The money that we get, we support ourselves and we support these orphans, even to go to school.”
“You can actually see the number of births of children being born negative. It means that people have actually received the message,” says Patrick.
Because of HIV education and prevention efforts, the mother-to-child HIV transmission rates in Zimbabwe have plummeted. Zimbabwe is on track to virtually eliminate new cases of HIV infection in children this year.