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A strong advocate for Rwanda’s children living with HIV and AIDS

November 03, 2011 —

Sister Soline Mukabadege is a caregiver in every sense of the word: Catholic nun, nurse and director of the Nyarusange Health Center. At this busy rural health facility, which provides psychosocial support to children and adolescents living with HIV and AIDS, Sister Soline puts children first. She stops to talk to an HIV-positive child who is having a hard time making friends, reminds another girl to take her antiretroviral medication (ART) and praises a teenager's good school report. It's time well spent, she says, because it helps her better understand the children's needs.

Sister Soline Mukabadege, Head of Nyarusange Health Center The center, located in Muhanga district within Rwanda's Southern Province, provides confidential HIV testing, ART, follow-up and counseling to children with HIV, many of whom also lost parents to AIDS and now reside with grandparents or other relatives. The services are part of Nyarusange Health Center's youth initiative, funded by the USAID/FHI 360 HIV/AIDS Clinical Services Program (HCSP).

Sister Soline, along with two other nurses and three social workers, received FHI 360 training on how to assist young people affected by HIV and AIDS. They learned how to help children better communicate with their guardians and how to improve their overall health and well-being. Since the training, Sister Soline has become a role model and a mother figure for the children, often dedicating her weekends to youth activities and patient care.

Sister Soline knows that caring for children affected by HIV and AIDS requires a holistic approach that includes physical recreation, educational and social activities, and economic assistance. In 2010, 26 young people ages 7 to 21 — more than half of them girls — were enrolled in the program. They attend monthly peer support groups, frequent a youth recreation center, and participate in a traditional dance troupe. Sister Soline solicited additional funding from Caritas/Rwanda, a Catholic relief and development organization, to provide the children with warm clothing and shoes, school supplies, and goats and rabbits to generate income for every child's household.

The program has led to positive changes in the children's attitudes and behavior. Before, said Sister Soline, the children weren't aware of their HIV status and, therefore, couldn't understand the need for medication. Some didn't take their antiretroviral treatment consistently, and still others were stigmatized by their peers and felt hopeless or depressed.

Now, Sister Soline reports that children in the Nyarusange Health Center's HIV diagnosis and psychosocial support program are more willing to take their medications; get regular check-ups, including CD4 counts; and attend school — all good signs for their future health and development.

Children throughout Rwanda are getting similar opportunities. The Rwandan Ministry of Health is rolling out the HIV diagnosis and psychosocial support program for youth as a standard part of the basic HIV-related care package provided in health facilities nationwide. More than 300 staff members have completed the training, and 67 of the 68 health facilities that FHI 360 supports under HCSP are currently offering these services.

PHOTO: (FHI 360/Rwanda)