From ‘Strong Shoulders’ by Yewoinshet Masresha
A woman came into Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) holding the hand of a ten-year-old girl. The woman went from room to room, not knowing where to go, whom she should contact. Through my window, I could see someone pointing her towards my room. She came in. I asked, ‘How can I help you?’‘This is my granddaughter. Her father died. A year after her father died, her mum died.’ ‘What was the cause of the death of her mum?’‘TB. After she died, the community brought this little girl to me. I brought her to the hospital and they found out she has TB.’ When she told me this she was very nervous. She told me, ‘I am an old woman, what if I get TB?’
The grandmother then handed me a white sealed envelope which the girl’s doctor had sent to us. I opened the envelope. The girl’s name was Elsa. She was HIV positive. The grandmother had not been informed. I didn’t know what to do. It is my duty to pass the information on to the grandmother, but I feared that she would not want to take care of the girl. But I had no choice, so I began the counselling process.
Children become victims of transmittable diseases when they lose their parents. Before I broke the news, I asked the woman where the child lived and how she came to bring the child to us. She told me how sick her daughter had been before she died – just skin and bone. Finally, I told her that Elsa was HIV positive. She was shocked and scared. ‘What am I going to do? Do you think I have the disease?’ I told her we could send her to the testing centre if she was worried. I asked her, ‘How do you think she got the virus?’
At this point, she took the hand of the child and ran out. She came back in the afternoon and brought a paper saying that the child was negative. The test was a year old. The grandmother reasoned if she was not born with it, how could she get the disease? We retested her and the positive diagnosis was confirmed.
I too wondered how she could have become HIV positive in the past year. She was only ten years old. I asked the girl if she was ever sick. She said ‘Yes, I had TB.’‘Did you get treatment?’‘Of course, my mother and I took injections.’‘Did you use different needles?’‘We always bought a new needle. My mother always said to the man who injected us; if I am injected first, then use the needle for my daughter. If she is injected first, then use the needle for me. We would only share with each other because we could only afford one needle.’The grandmother confirmed this. ‘I went to the clinic with them. I was helping them.’ ‘What happened? Didn’t you know that the syringes were supposed to be clean?’ I asked.
‘Yes, we know. They warned us that that we should not share needles with other people. That is why we bought a new one every time.’ But the mother and daughter were sharing.
I was reminded of a woman who was eating sugar cane in our office. She was holding her daughter on her lap. She ate the sugar cane for herself and she shared it with her child. Her lips were bleeding. She was feeding the child sugar cane. I knew she was here for counselling and I didn’t know if she knew why she came to us. I went over to speak with her.
She said ‘I am from Gonder province and I have been sent to Tikur Anbessa Hospital. They told me that I am HIV positive.’ ‘If you are positive, then why are you feeding your baby with bloody sugar cane,’ I asked.She laughed at me, ‘Well, she is my daughter, she is not someone else’s daughter.’
Elsa’s grandmother told me that the man who had injected them was a ‘village doctor’. In rural parts of Ethiopia there are people who give injections and medicines who are not trained doctors. This is their way of making money, and because there are no trained doctors close by, people accept the village doctors. I was angry. Should I take this man to court? He should know that even a mother and daughter should not share needles. I want him to understand how he has affected this child’s life.
These village doctors are very common. Who knows how many people they have infected in this manner?