Until six years ago, I had never given much thought to global maternal health issues. Or to maternal health issues at all. True, my wife and I had struggled with infertility issues and chose domestic adoption to begin our family. Still, the birthmothers of our first two children had good pre-natal care, adequate family support systems and healthy deliveries. Often, we never think about things until something goes wrong...until something interrupts our comfortable life to call attention to a place where things aren't as they should be. Almost six years ago, a desire...more like a call... began to surface in my and my wife's hearts. We were content with a full and active life centered around our two children, my job as Athletic Director at The University of Tennessee, church activities, family and friends. Our journey out of the comfortable began with the question my wife asked one night at dinner: "What would you do if we had all the money in the world?" The unexpected answer came easily, "I'd give kids who don't have a home, a home." And from that moment, we started walking a wild, stretching path that a short 11 months later led us to adopt and bring home a sibling group of three born in Ethiopia...born into a situation where things were not as they should be. And in the span of a few short months...the burden of global maternal health issues came to our doorstep. The reality of how things really are in other parts of the world could no longer be ignored or observed from a distance.
The reality hits hard--our baby girl's life-long illness could have been prevented. And perhaps, she and her big brothers would have never been orphaned. Truly, maternal health is important.
The circumstances that gave us the privilege to parent these children, ages 7, 4 and 10 months at adoption, was a crisis in maternal health...their birthmother's health, to be specific. While we don't know all the specifics of their early life , we know their birthmom died of an illness in the prime of her life, leaving three young children in the care of her own mother, the children's grandmother. We know that her baby girl, now our baby girl, was HIV-infected. The obvious conclusion is that this mother died of complications of being HIV-infected herself. While there is no doubt in our minds that we were called to parent these children and to merge their stories with ours, we can't help but wonder...what would it have looked like if our lives had intersected sooner? What if we had been able to partner with the numerous organizations in the world who are fighting to help women and children overcome their difficult circumstances? And what if--somehow, someway--our partnering could have helped to provide this very birthmother with maternal care, education, medical and emotional support and, in this case, the education and medicines that could have prevented her baby girl from being HIV-infected? The reality hits hard--our baby girl's life-long illness could have been prevented. And perhaps, she and her big brothers would have never been orphaned. Truly, maternal health is important.
Worldwide some 220 million women lack access to life-saving family planning resources that can promote healthy pregnancy, prevent unintended pregnancy and help stop the spread of HIV. More than half of new HIV infections globally are among women, and their babies are often born with HIV. Some 11 million children worldwide have lost one or more parents to the pandemic, and two-thirds of those children live in sub-Saharan Africa. There are many organizations doing their part to bring resources and awareness to global maternal health. Blood:Water Mission is one such entity. Since it was founded in 2004, Blood:Water has raised $22 million and partnered with a dozen African grassroots organizations to bring clean water and HIV/AIDS support to more than a million people in 11 countries. With its technical and financial assistance, Blood:Water Mission has helped to organize passionate local groups organize around local-level solutions that include wells, latrines, and health clinics with much-needed supplies such as anti-retroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission. These resources mean new life and real hope for those families and their communities.
If Kalu's birth mother had had access to this kind of care, our daughter might have been born free of HIV. Modern U.S. medicine provides her now with every chance to grow up normally and live a full vibrant life. But millions of other young people still living in the developing world are not so blessed. Without access to reproductive health and family planning services, those millions of young people will likely continue the cycle that lead to Kalu being born with HIV, unable to plan their families and provide a safe, healthy environment for their children.
It's time for that to change. America should be a leader in helping local groups worldwide spread the word and the knowhow to access clean water, HIV prevention and treatment, and comprehensive reproductive health information and services. That would be worth all the money in the world.
Mike Hamilton is the former Director of Men's Athletics at the University of Tennessee and the current president of Blood: Water Mission, a non-profit agency based in Nashville that partners with African grassroots organizations to address the HIV/AIDS and water crises there.