|A woman living with HIV has an ultrasound. Social organisations are standing up for the reproductive rights of women living with HIV. — Photo courtesy of UNAIDS.
by Nguyen Ngoc
THAI NGUYEN (VNS) — Standing on the threshold of her unfinished house, 32-year-old Nguyen Thi Luong lit up with joy thinking about her coming baby.
Three years ago, the thin woman from northern Thai Nguyen Province's Dai Tu District never thought she would be so happy. That year, Luong lost her husband and first child to HIV/AIDS and found out she too was infected with the virus.
But with the support of her friends and continued counseling, as well as the help of the local branch of Hoa Huong Duong (Sun Flower) Club, an organisation that provides care and support to people living with HIV/AIDS, Luong eventually gained back her sense of self.
When she joined the club of 100 HIV-infected members— 83 of whom were women—Luong found that having HIV did not mean her life was over.
Through monthly discussions, Luong learned about how to deal with her condition. However, the club sessions did not address her primary longing: a baby.
Last year, after much counseling, Luong and her new partner decided to go through with a pregnancy.
"Nobody supports our decision. Neighbours and relatives, even my sister, believed that I would transmit the deadly virus to my baby and it would be a burden to society after I died," Luong said.
However, Luong is now four months pregnant and receiving antiretroviral therapy (ARV). She strongly believes that her baby will be born without the virus.
"My partner and I are building our house and preparing everything to welcome our baby," Luong said.
Another woman from Ha Thuong Commune, 33-year-old Tran Thi Thu, has the same desire as Luong but failed twice to become a mother.
Her five-year-old daughter died of the disease five years ago; her son followed, only one hour after coming into the world.
"I participate in several projects for HIV, which makes me busy the whole day. But after work, I'm a lonely woman in the cold house where I so longed to have a child," Thu said.
She expressed determination to try to have another baby next year.
"Even living with HIV, a woman still deserves to have her own baby," Thu said. "As long as you are optimistic, I strongly believe that God will not let you down whether you are a healthy person or an HIV sufferer."
Luong and Thu's desire to have a baby is common among HIV-infected women in the district, according to Dinh Thi Xuan, head of Hoa Huong Duong club.
"All female HIV carriers in the club talk about their burning desire to have children," she said.
Xuan added that three members of the club have children who tested negative for HIV. This encouraged other women not to give up hope of having healthy children.
"I will also have a baby when my financial state is better," Xuan confided.
Without preventive intervention, between 20 and 45 per cent of infants born to HIV-positive mothers contract HIV through mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The proportion can be reduced to less than 10 per cent through a combination of prevention measures, including antiretroviral therapy (ART) for the expectant mother and her newborn child, hygienic delivery conditions and safe infant feeding.
Thai Nguyen ranks fourth out of ten provinces nationwide with the highest number of HIV cases, according to the provincial department of health. Over 9,000 HIV cases have been reported throughout the province, 19 per cent of them women.
The risk of mother-to-child transmission reported in the province last year was six per cent, said vice director of the province's HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Centre Truong Binh Minh.
"Motherhood is stipulated to be the legal right of women following the Viet Nam Population Ordinance so nobody can prevent HIV-positive women from having children," he said.
However, Minh recommended those women ask for counselors' advice before having children during pregnancy and after delivery. In addition, they should take account of factors that affect a woman's ability to bring up the child such as financial condition, job and support from relatives.
"Scientists have not found any drugs to eradicate HIV/AIDS, so both HIV-positive women and their children face the risk of mother-to-child transmission. Thus, the government should pay attention to the fact that HIV women are choosing to have children," Minh said.
The United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) officially states that parents living with HIV have their sexual reproductive rights protected and can have HIV-free babies.
"All women have the right to choice when it comes to exercising their sexual and reproductive health and rights and protecting themselves from risk of HIV infection," said UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, Management and Governance, Jan Beagle. "AIDS is much more than a health issue, it is a development issue, a rights issue, and it is clear that gender equality and human rights are non-negotiable elements to ensure effective HIV and health responses as well as social justice for all."
In a recent UNAIDS survey, women living with HIV expressed concern about the advice given by many health workers and authorities to avoid having children. They also complained that they lacked information about how to have a safe pregnancy and deliver an HIV-negative child.
"People living with HIV aim to live in a world that protects their sexual and reproductive rights," the survey concluded. The authors added that this required training health providers to teach HIV-positive individuals considering becoming pregnant about safe conception methods as well as changes in regulations to improve access to fertility procedures that reduced the risk of passing on the virus. — VNS