“You are stronger than this disease”: Sharing Hope in Angola for People Living with HIV

{Photo credit: BLC staff/MSH.}Photo credit: BLC staff/MSH.

“You are stronger than this disease,” Ana’s sister reminds her.

Ana Paz is a 35-year-old community health worker for Mwenho, a civil society organization in Angola. She works at Centro de Salúde de Alegria, a public health facility in the capital city, Luanda. Her day is busy, providing HIV counseling and testing (HCT), basic medication, and support to people living with HIV.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Building Local Capacity for Delivery of HIV Services in Southern Africa Project (BLC), led by Management Sciences for Health (MSH), is partnering with Mwenho to increase women’s knowledge of HIV transmission and prevention, as well as the importance of HCT and treatment. Since beginning implementation in November 2012, Mwenho has reached 8,486 people with HIV prevention messages, provided HCT to 1,766 people, and supported 443 people living with HIV at health facilities and during home visits.

One of the people Paz supports is 27-year-old Graciana*. Graciana discovered that she was living with HIV last year when she was pregnant with her third child. Her husband did not want to test for HIV or even discuss it with her. She subsequently lost the baby.

Soon Graciana’s second child, four-year-old Maria, started losing weight and coughing.

Graciana carried Maria to Centro de Salúde de Alegria; her four-year-old was too weak to walk. Maria tested positive for HIV; she will soon begin antiretroviral therapy (ART). Graciana, already on ART, likely saved her child’s life by bringing her to the health facility. Graciana says:

Ana [Paz] has supported me. … She encourages me to continue my medicine. She calls and visits me so that I don’t lose hope.

Paz also conducts HIV sensitization sessions with pregnant women who attend monthly antenatal care visits at the health facility. One woman, three months pregnant, tested for HIV on her first visit.

It is good for pregnant women to test for HIV, because then you know your status and can prevent your baby being born with HIV. I had tested years before I was pregnant, but the information I received about mother-to-child transmission reinforced the need to test again.

Branca Antonia, one of the nurses at Centro de Salúde de Alegria, lauded the partnership between the health facility and Mwenho:

It is very beneficial to have Ana providing the HIV counseling and testing. Before her help, pregnant women waited a long time to be assisted. Now, we share the work and are more productive, and that makes it easier.

Paz’ own journey has not been easy. She began dating in 1998 and became pregnant in 2001. Her daughter started becoming sick when she was one year and eight months old. At that time, health care in Angola was extremely limited and expensive. Paz took her to Namibia for treatment, and she tested positive for HIV, as did Paz. Her child died soon after testing. “I was angry and disappointed,” she says, “I confronted my boyfriend, but he denied his HIV-positive status.”

Paz’ sister, a nurse in a pediatric ward, has been a source of strength to her:

She told me that I wouldn’t die, that I needed to live in a healthy way. She told me,
'You are stronger than this disease; keep your head up. You are a strong and beautiful person; and you can do anything that someone without HIV can do.'

With the assistance of friends living abroad, Paz began ART in 2004. She joined ASPALSIDA, an association of people living with HIV in the province of Lubango, where she received counseling and joined a support group. Through ASPALSIDA, she travelled to Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa for additional HIV training. In 2010, she married a man who is HIV-negative. Through artificial insemination, they have a child together, who is also HIV-negative. 

Paz has seen a difference because of her work at the health facility.

Now more people come to test for HIV and are comfortable being seen coming to our room for services.

She believes that sharing her own testimony about living with HIV encourages others to overcome their own challenges. Paz conducts her own research to stay current with information on HIV and how to fight the stigma and discrimination people living with HIV still face. She is in her first year of a nursing degree. “I am studying nursing to be able to care for those who are most in need and help people living with HIV who are mistreated and face discrimination.”

In Angola, BLC supports local civil society organizations (CSOs) to deliver improved evidence- and community-based HIV prevention services that promote healthy behaviors among families. BLC provides performance-based grants to CSOs to work with communities, traditional leaders, community health advocates, and local churches to improve individuals’ HIV prevention practices, and where possible, in collaboration with local municipalities and health care facilities.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

All quotes translated from Portuguese.

BLC staff contributed to this content.