FH Helps Woman Fight AIDS, Bear Healthy Children

Penny GammToday’s guest blog is written by Penny Husted-Gamm. Penny is an award-winning photographer who has been a long-time supporter of Food for the Hungry and an advocate for the poor and suffering. She recently visited Food for the Hungry programs in Uganda and was inspired by how FH is helping women with AIDS to give birth to healthy children.

Hope. Is that the first word you think of when you hear the word HIV or AIDS? Or does your heart drop with an undercurrent of dread at those three-letter acronyms?

Imagine an innocent 16-year-old girl doing what she does every day, walking along the rural roads of her village of northern Uganda to school. The usual sounds of life would greet her: chickens squawking, birds chirping, goats bleating, and small children playing outside their homes as the older siblings trekked off to school. Except on this day, those typical morning greetings would be disrupted by unimaginable violence. Unbeknownst to 16-year-old Polline, members of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) lay in wait for her under a bridge she crossed every day.

The LRA kidnapped Polline on that day in 1996 and she spent the next eight years of her life as a prisoner of  and eventual “wife” to LRA leader Joseph Kony’s second-in-command. Polline tried three separate times to escape the LRA, but was caught and severely beaten each time. Despite bearing three children for her captors, Polline’s fierce spirit refused to be broken. After eight years in captivity, for reasons Polline never understood, one of the LRA soldiers helped her escape. They fled to Khartoum, Sudan, where Polline registered with the United Nations as a refugee.

Woman with AIDS has healthy baby

Polline and her new-born, HIV-negative baby.

The next few months were a blur as she moved around Sudan and back to Gulu, Uganda, and eventually to home. She returned to find her mother weak and sick, and her brothers missing.

Making a new life

Polline’s fighting spirit led her to enroll in a training program with Food for the Hungry, where she learned skills for tailoring and earned her certificate. She sought counseling through FH Uganda’s New Life Center to help with the trauma she endured during her years of captivity.

Polline eventually married and became pregnant with the couple’s first child. Life was looking up for her. She knew FH’s New Life Center offered pre-natal services, so she made an appointment for herself. Part of the Center’s pre-natal care includes HIV/AIDS screening. For Polline, the news was devastating. Positive. Thoughts of her unborn baby flooded her mind. It was as though the LRA were still there, destroying her life and now that of her unborn baby.

Hope lives

What Polline didn’t know was that her HIV-positive diagnosis was not an automatic sentence for her baby. Early intervention often prevents the transmission of the virus from mother to baby. Polline started the antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) immediately. After six months of ARV treatment the viral presence is reduced, therefore reducing the chances of HIV transmission from mother to baby. Polline continued her treatment throughout her pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy, HIV-free baby boy. Her son received treatment for six weeks as part of the preventive protocol, and he is now a happy, healthy, and lively three-year-old. Polline recently gave birth to a healthy, HIV-free baby girl.

Woman with AIDS and her two healthy children

Polline with her baby and her three-year-old son.

Polline has survived unimaginable violence and hardships, yet she exudes not just a strong will, but hope. When asked what keeps her going, Polline does not hesitate.“My children keep me going. They need me, and I live for them,” Polline says. Thanks to advances in HIV/AIDS treatment, and the accessibility of pre-natal care via FH in northern Uganda, Polline dared to hope her children could live a life free of HIV, and her hope was fulfilled.

“Food for the Hungry has helped me a lot.  They give me advice and counseling on everything,” Polline says.

Consider donating to FH’s worldwide HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, which include preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV; caring for children orphaned by AIDS; and helping people living with AIDS earn income, access ARVs and grow nutritious food to maintain their overall health.