At just 22-years-old, Maria learned that she was going to be a mother for the first time.
Living in Panama without a husband or a college degree, the news brought a flood of joy and worry. And while the baby was already a big surprise, Maria had no idea that just a few months later she would be given the most difficult news of her life.
Maria was anxious to meet her child. Throughout her pregnancy, she attended all the prenatal checkups, and, according to the doctors, everything was normal. But when Maria finally welcomed her baby into the world, she was only able to enjoy a few hours of happiness, congratulations and presents before the doctors broke the news: both she and her son were HIV-positive.
At the time, HIV was the scariest disease imaginable. Hearing her diagnosis was devastating, but finding out that her son was also positive made it even more difficult. Treatment was limited in Panama, and it seemed that HIV was a death sentence.
Fifteen years have passed since the diagnosis. Despite her shock, Maria’s leaned on her maternal instinct, finding the strength to fight for her own life and her son’s. Despite the enormous challenge, Maria and her son are still alive, overcoming obstacles they faced and thriving both individually and as a family.
Maria turned her own diagnosis and her son’s into her life’s mission. She now works to support HIV-positive women and prevent vertical transmission of HIV to newborn babies. With all the information, technology, and access to medicine that is available today, no child should be born with HIV.
With Fundación PROBIDSIDA (Foundation for the Welfare and Dignity of Persons Affected by HIV) Maria participates in the daily fight to make sure that babies at risk for infection are born HIV-negative. This initiative was named “Your Best Proof of Love”, reflecting how an expectant mother’s proof of love is taking the HIV test and protecting her baby. PROBIDSIDA is working to ensure that pregnant women know their status, and ultimately help eradicate vertical transmission altogether.
Since 2005, “Your Best Proof of Love” has used a wide-reaching campaign to encourage all pregnant women to get tested in order to reduce the incidence of vertical transmission. The initiative has received support from Johnson & Johnson, the Office of the First Lady of the Republic of Panama, and the Office of the Mayor of Panama City who have joined as active and long-term allies.
Progress has been made, but bringing long-term change is challenging. In 2005, HIV tests became mandatory by law for all pregnant women in Panama. With changes like this, Panama hopes to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of having zero children born with HIV by 2015, an important commitment to future generations.
The progress is encouraging. According to Panama’s Ministry of Health, statistics in 2000 indicated that 48% of HIV-positive mothers in Panama passed the virus to their children. In 2010 that number has been reduced to just 5% thanks to the strict implementation of prenatal checkups and testing. These statistics from Panama’s Ministry of Health National HIV Program show just how important it is to continue the fight against vertical transmission.
The best proof of Maria’s love for her son is in honoring his struggles by working to ensure that no other child has to face the same obstacles. Until her mission is complete, she will continue to dedicate her life’s work to helping every innocent child begin their life in the healthiest, happiest way possible.
Editor's Note: Johnson & Johnson is a sponsor of The Huffington Post's Global Motherhood section.