ART and A Little Help From Friends
September 18, 2007, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia —by Debbie DeVoe
Senait Abebe jumps up from her chair, interrupting our talk to send someone down the hall for a poster. When it is brought to the room, she displays it grandly under a beaming smile.
"Because we are taking antiretroviral medicine, we have become healthy and productive citizens," reads the poster's caption, set above four pictures of thriving patients. The third picture shows Senait in her shop selling tomatoes and other vegetables, while the fourth shows Yenehune Temene tending cabbage in his home garden.
Senait, Yenehune and Getachaw Wolde Georgies are sitting down with me to share their stories. Six to eight years ago, each of them learned they were HIV-positive after illnesses led their doctors to encourage them to get tested. At the time, antiretroviral therapy, or ART, was out of reach. Limited drug supplies and high prices prevented anyone but the rich from starting therapy. Today, though, the three are on antiretroviral medicines provided free by the Ethiopian government, and not one of them shows outward signs of sickness.
"Before ART, my body was in bad shape, and I was counting the days," Senait explains. "Now I feel like I have no virus in my body."
These survivors all say they are still alive because of the services provided by the CRS-supported Organization for Social Services for AIDS (OSSA) in Addis Ababa. The local agency serves people living with HIV and AIDS and orphans affected by the pandemic. Funded in part by the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and receiving food support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, OSSA provides its clients with a wealth of care and support, including educational assistance for the orphans.
"It's a lot — community support, food support, financial support, counseling, above all, the counseling," Senait explains. "I feel like I'm getting food when I get counseling and all this love."
Love alone hasn't been enough for everyone, though. After Yenehune discovered he was HIV-positive, he didn't have the courage to tell his wife. He told her instead that he had bronchitis and that the whole family should see the doctor. They went and were tested for HIV. When his wife's test came back positive and his children's were negative, Yenehune disclosed his HIV-positive status as well.
At the time, Yenehune's CD4 count — which measures the presence of white blood cells to determine immune system health — was a low 57 and his wife's was 170. They couldn't afford the antiretrovirals, which are now given free to any HIV-positive patient in Ethiopia with a count lower than 200. Yenehune's body somehow managed to survive for six years until free drug therapy became available, but sadly, his wife succumbed to the virus before gaining access to the medications.
More Than Medicine
The counseling services available at OSSA help clients like Yenehune get through difficult times and find hope, especially as their bodies gain strength through treatment.
"We appreciate the support from the government — the free ART — but [the medicine] alone can't keep us from death. We also need food to manage the side effects," Yenehune notes. "When you see us, you may think we're healthy and able [to work hard], but we're still sick. Thank God we can wake up and go out each day, but we still need help."
Paulos Kenea, assistant program coordinator at OSSA, jumps in after hearing his clients say they rely on the center's services to survive. "I don't like hearing that," he says. "OSSA may not be here tomorrow."
"But it's here now," Senait counters. "Before, being HIV-positive meant death. Now we can be productive, but to do that we should have some backup."
Paulos talks with the clients about the need to work toward sustaining themselves — which they are doing through savings and loans groups, small businesses and home gardens.
There's one last thing that Paulos can't resist sharing: Yenehune recently began dating another client.
"They help each other," he adds with a smile.
Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer for East Africa. She is currently visiting projects in Ethiopia.