Poonam’s Story: On ART, Young Girl Thrives with HIV

The first thing you notice about Poonam is her smile. Her eyes are filled with the wonderment of a child on the cusp of becoming a teenager, full of life and dreams for the future.

She goes to school just like her 12-year-old peers and says that she wants to get a “good job” when she grows up. It’s difficult to imagine that a year ago this little girl was too frail and malnourished to stay in school. Now, thanks to antiretroviral therapy (ART) all visible traces of her HIV infection are gone.

Poonam was born in Mumbai, India to HIV positive parents. After Poonam’s mother died of AIDS and as she became too ill to stay in school, Catholic nuns from the order of the Sisters of the Destitute at the Jyothis Care Center (JCC) took Poonam into their care. JCC subsequently partnered with AHF and Poonam became the very first ART patient at the new AHF/JCC treatment site in Mumbai.

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Poonam (right) has made many new friends at school, both HIV positive and negative — all go to school together.

Since starting treatment in 2013, Poonam has recovered from opportunistic infections, her strength has returned and she has grown and gained weight. She now lives at a charitable boarding school for girls and unmarried young women.

Poonam’s story is a snapshot of India’s multi-generational cycle of HIV: a wife is infected by her husband, then the child becomes infected at birth, and later the child becomes an orphan when one or both parents die, or the surviving parent abandons the child. Also, people living with HIV in India will sometimes withhold their status from their new partners due to stigma, which further continues the cycle.

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Poonam now.

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Poonam at JCC in 2013, before starting ART.

However, Poonam’s story also shows that the cycle can be stopped, that with better access to treatment and prevention service for mothers and children, millions of lives can be saved and millions of children can be spared from being orphaned.

Poonam’s future is bright like her smile, and we owe it to children just like her around the world a chance to grow up, go to school and fulfill their dreams and aspirations, unimpeded by HIV/AIDS.