Cervical cancer was far from Annie’s mind in 2008 when both she and her daughter tested positive for HIV. At the time her concern was for her little girl who lay in a hospital bed. Pneumonia threatened the life of the six year-old. While health services were freely available locally, they were out of reach for the ailing mother and child.
Access to healthcare is a prevailing problem in Malawi. In the country the size of England, 120,000 children live with HIV/AIDS. Over half of the rural population live more than five kilometres from basic health facilities, where shelves that should contain stocks of medical supplies are often empty. This discourages patients from undertaking an arduous journey. Annie lives five kilometres from the SOS Medical Centre in Blantyre and eight kilometres from Malawi’s largest hospital; the Queen Elizabeth Central. Both facilities offer sophisticated levels of care, are always well stocked, affordable and dependable. Why then did healthcare gradually become out of reach for Annie and her little girl?
The price of the busfare threatened her mother's life
Cervical cancer kills 250,000 women annually. Families need a cure within reach - © T. Standún
After recovering from pneumonia for the third time in so many months Gladys was happy to return from hospital to her own bed. With their school bags on their backs, her fifth grade friends waved as they walked past her house. Gladys looked on. She gave up crying about the fact that she could not join them. Now aged ten, bouts of ill health and antiviral therapy have impeded her schooling. Gladys has outgrown class one, however, she feels lucky that she can occasionally make it there. She does her best to teach herself.
At home, Gladys reads everything available to her. She became worried for her mother after learning that cervical cancer kills a quarter of a million women globally every year. It is the most common cancer affecting people like her mother; young African women living with HIV. With early detection costing around €10 (USD$13) per person, cervical cancer is completely curable.
Knowing the theory was one thing for the ten year-old. In practice, what she saw was her malnourished mother’s deteriorating condition. Every day, she became weaker, and gradually immobile as a series of opportunistic infections left her legs constantly swollen. The health services were there, but the cost of getting to them was the problem. This posed a serious threat to her mother’s life.
Unselfishly, Annie who was unemployed, saved what she could to ensure she had the bus fare needed every month to get her daughter to attend retroviral therapy sessions at the hospital. Finding work was out of the question. Her own treatment was often sacrificed when funds were scarce. It appeared that Gladys was destined to become one of the world’s 16 million AIDS orphans.
Women in a Kenyan prison are among the 100,000 across Africa who are seen and treated for free © SOS Archives
See and treat the 'silent killer'
Ten medical centres were chosen in 2011 across Zambia Gambia, Ghana, Kenya and Malawi to see and quickly treat up to 100,000 women for cervical cancer – for free. The specific expertise of the Female Cancer Foundation has been put into practice at selected SOS Medical Centres; Blantyre is one of them. Gladys was happy to discover the Save My Mother initiative that also provided cancer awareness to women in the community. Now, like her mother, she was anxious to know the results of the simple test. Did she have cervical cancer?
She shared her concerns with her young friends. Word of her plight later reached a health worker from the SOS Medical Centre who was conducting a preventative health outreach programme in the area. This was a major turning point for the family. Within hours, both Annie and Gladys had reason to smile, as a social worker from the nearby SOS Social Centre arranged a variety of supports to strengthen the family. Immediate provisions such as food, and the cash required to pay for transport for medical treatment was arranged.
The ten year-old was provided with extra assistance with her education. She now joins her peers in school on a regular basis.Discovering her training and potential employment options did as much for Annie’s emotional wellbeing as the free healthcare she received at the SOS Medical Centre. Following treatment for her swollen legs and other conditions, she was able to walk again. But lingering in Gladys mind was her concern about the disease known as the silent killer of young mothers – cervical cancer.
The results were clear. Annie was encouraged to return for future tests –but only once a year, which is what is recommended for all women living with HIV. For now, they need not worry about cervical cancer. Gladys no longer fears becoming an orphan; her mother is not likely to die a young woman. Today, they both enjoy all that is good in Malawi.
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family concerned.
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