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Mothers Can Make All the Difference in the Health of Their Children—and of Their Communities

At an outreach clinic in Bariadi District, Tanzania, I met a 17-year-old boy named Daudi who sat patiently next to his mother, waiting for his turn to be circumcised. The pair sat near the front of a queue and seemed relieved that their three-day wait was nearly complete. Tanzania is home to 1.4 million people living with HIV and the national government has made male circumcision a priority tactic in reducing transmission of the virus. Daudi’s mother, Teereza, told me she knew male circumcision can reduce the transmission of HIV to men by 60%, but hadn’t considered taking her son for the procedure due to the cost. They decided to come to the outreach clinic after she heard an announcement at the market about free circumcision services. While Daudi chatted with some of his friends who were also waiting in line, Teereza told me that many of her friends were there with their sons.  When I asked if they all found out about circumcision from the announcements at the market, she said that she and her friends have discussed male circumcision amongst themselves for some time. While collecting water they encouraged each other to take their children and partners in for the procedure. 

Teereza reminded me of my own mother.

She said she wishes women were better educated on more health issues and procedures so they could offer stronger arguments in encouraging their children and partners. As I talked with Teereza and Daudi, I was struck by the essential role mothers hold in community health. Teereza reminded me of my own mother, talking to the neighbor women about the HPV vaccine after it came out and swapping notes on family practitioners they did and didn’t like. My mom was the one who kept track of my dentist appointments, annual physicals, and immunization records. She was also the one who helped me take ownership of my own health.  She encouraged me to start scheduling my own appointments and asking my own questions during doctor visits. Before I stood up to leave, I pulled Teereza aside and asked her if she was nervous about her son’s safety in the operating theater or the pain of the procedure. She told me she wasn’t worried because she wants to prevent the transmission of HIV. Like my own mother, she sees past immediate challenges and into her child’s future. At a key moment in his life, she is teaching her son to take ownership of his health. A long queue and temporary pain seems a reasonable price to pay.  Daudi’s circumcision services were provided by a collaboration between the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and IntraHealth International’s Tanzania HIV Prevention Project, which is funded by the US Centers for Disease Control.Photo by Abbie Heffelfinger.