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ONE Blog: Checking in on Maternal Health in Guatemala

By Christy Turlington Burns

With World AIDS Day coming up on Dec. 1, celebrity activist Christy Turlington Burns reports on her ongoing work with (RED) and the ONE Campaign on the No Child Born with HIV campaign. At Opportunity, we’re inspired by her commitment to improving the lives of women in the developing world with these health initiatives. The following blog post, ”Checking in on Maternal Health in Guatemala,” written by Burns, was originally published yesterday on the  ONE Blog, and it is Burns’  first post in a three-part series:

I arrived back to Guatemala yesterday and it feels like seeing an old friend. I’m back to premiere the documentary, No Woman, No Cry, a part of which was filmed down here in early 2009. The film’s primary focus is on the barriers to health care for women at a critical juncture in their pregnancies in four countries — Tanzania, Bangladesh, the U.S. and Guatemala.

These barriers too often contribute to what are largely preventable deaths. Since completing the film, I’ve been eager to come back to Guatemala to share the finished product with those who participated in the making of it and check in on how things have progressed (or not) since I was last here. 

Obviously, the issue of maternal mortality is not as simple as it may seem. We know what needs to be done, so let’s get on with it. This is an issue that encompasses at least three out of four of the UN Millennium Development Goals. But most of us can, or should, agree that the basic concept that women should NOT be left up to fate or luck that they survive pregnancy and childbirth. 

That is what drove me to make “No Woman, No Cry” and, subsequently, to establish a new campaign, Every Mother Counts. There are hundreds of thousands of women around the world who die from pregnancy-related causes. Many die from post-partum hemorrhage after delivery, but do not have access to the most basic medical care to stop that bleeding. And there are those who may die because they are too young and are not yet developed enough to safely deliver their baby. Others will die for lack of the most basic medicines or antibiotics, and many others will die from a perhaps more well-known affliction such as HIV. 

With World AIDS Day right around the corner, and my ongoing work in support of (RED) and ONE on the No Child Born with HIV campaign, this link has been very much on my mind as I prepared for this trip. So much so, that we decided to start our visit with a trip to a local hospice focused on HIV work. With the help of a local filmmaker friend, we traveled to Hospicio San Jose directly from the airport on the way to Antigua, where we will be staying for a few nights. 

Originally focused on allowing terminally ill patients pass away with dignity, the Hospicio San Jose quickly became a place where those ill parents would turn when faced with the horror of leaving their children behind. And many of those children would become HIV-positive. 

San Jose was one of the first institutions focused on providing care and support to those children who are HIV-positive and left behind or abandoned by HIV-positive parents who simply cannot care for them themselves. We met several happy and thriving children (like Alejo in the photo above) who are alive today thanks to the ARV treatment they are receiving in this hospital. 

But, what was even more encouraging were the stories of the children we didn’t meet — the children whose mothers learned about their status in time to prevent vertical (from mother to child) transmission. Through the comprehensive services provided here, more mothers are seeking care for themselves and their unborn children. 

Returning to Central America starkly reminds me of the role that stigma still plays all over the world. When a society as a whole is still uncomfortable about recognizing that there is an HIV issue, it becomes even more difficult to address. This is why we need to continue educating the public about HIV to prevent the spreading of it and make sure that treatment is available for those who seek it.

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