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An AIDS grandmother cares for her grandchild.

AIDS grandmothers inspire grad student

November 14, 2007

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Anne Paxton remains both haunted and inspired by her recent trip to rural South Africa to identify the health-access needs of grandmothers who’ve become the sole family caretakers after their children died prematurely from AIDS.

Anne Paxton, an SFU health sciences grad student and South African native, was particularly struck by her interview with one young grandmother in the Eastern Cape village of Zithulele. The woman was holding a constantly crying grandchild whose 19-year-old mother had died of AIDS.

"She was feeding the baby water because she couldn’t afford formula and the local hospital had only enough for its inpatients," says Paxton, a mid-career professional completing a degree in population and public health/global health. "I’m sure the baby died."

Paxton was in Zithulele on a practicum, helping grandmothers identify and organize a variety of village health-improvement projects. Things such as building outhouses, installing fencing around water supplies to protect them from animal-waste contamination, purifying drinking water and constructing rainwater collection systems.

Zithulele reflects the unabated onslaught of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a local prevalence rate of almost 30 per cent according to one recent study. An estimated 100 South Africans die every day because of AIDS. Some six million are expected to die in the next 10 years.

In many cases, grandmothers are the only ones left to support their grandchildren and their own, grown children who are often too ill to work. "These grandmothers are what keep the community going," marvels Paxton.

After graduating in 2008, Paxton hopes to return to Zithulele "to give back to the country that gave me so much growing up there." She’s particularly keen to create a travelling mobile clinic for grandmothers living far from the hospital, so that they can stay healthy and raise their grandchildren.

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