Dr Karyn Moshal started CHIVA Africa to share knowledge, skills and experience to improve the lives of children and adolescents living with HIV. By Nwabisa Ngumbela
When the SA government said in 2004 that it would provide antiretroviral therapy (ART) to all those who need it, a team of UK-based HIV specialists paired up with some of our local doctors to help prepare them for this massive undertaking.
Their aim was to provide practical training on all aspects of paediatric and adolescent HIV care. Eleven years later, CHIVA (the Children’s HIV Association) still sends teams of medical staff to SA to teach local healthcare practitioners to deal with all the aspects of long-term HIV treatment for young people. At the helm: Dr Karyn Moshal, founder of the long-standing organisation.
Charity begins at home
Dr Moshal is a fourth-generation South African living in London and working with HIV-positive children. To be able to share her experience and expertise is her way of giving back. She says, ‘This was such a great honour – I jumped at the chance to help. To see the progress being made in the hospitals and clinics throughout the country is a reward and inspiration in itself. We have watched the hospital wards go from being filled with dying children to being nearly empty, while the clinics fill up with healthy children on treatment. It is incredibly gratifying.’
A delicate matter
The CHIVA team in South Africa has five staff members and, in addition to recruiting volunteers from the UK team, is growing a strong pool of local aides who give up their time to support their colleagues at clinics all over SA.
The organisation itself does not deal directly with the children, but works primarily with local doctors who are responsible for looking after the kids and who have to share these skills with their caregivers.
Juliet Houghton, country director for CHIVA in SA, says the challenge often arises when they have to provide the affected children with information about the virus, so that they can understand the implications of their condition in language appropriate for their age.
‘The disclosure of an HIV diagnosis to minors is an ongoing process that runs over months and years. We have to help them grasp what is happening in their bodies, why they need to take the pills, and how to keep themselves and those around them safe.’
This is a very sensitive matter, so the medical practitioners have the task of sharing this information and, at the same time, ensuring the children don’t feel stigmatised. The aim is to ensure, with each session, that they build and uphold the children’s self-esteem.
Knowledge is power
Understanding the dangers of the disease also depends on the children’s age and level of maturity. For the little ones, information sharing will focus on concrete concepts such as medicine and helping the body to stay healthy.
Many older children have a clearer understanding of HIV, how to treat it and how to live a long and healthy life.
‘Since the introduction of antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV is now viewed as a chronic condition, much like diabetes or high blood pressure.’ These young people are educated about all aspects of a healthy lifestyle to empower them with the knowledge and skills necessary to manage their HIV and to prevent the development of other chronic diseases.
Dr Moshal cannot emphasise enough the importance of the children and caregivers having and understanding this information, as it is crucial for the long-term management of HIV. ‘We teach people infected with and affected by HIV about their medication and how to take it, as well as the value of taking it without missing any doses.’
Not a death sentence
Juliet’s advice to people – infected or not – is simple: ‘HIV is a chronic disease like many others and people with this virus are just like you and me.
‘If you get tested early enough and take your treatment properly, it will become a regular chronic condition that should not stop you from doing anything you want with your life –including being a grandparent!’
If you wish to volunteer or donate money to this initiative, contact them on 031 309 2217 or visit chiva-africa.org.