Editor’s Note: Today we share a story (and photos) fromRaphiatou (“Raphia”) Noumbissi, MSW, a Medical Case Management Coordinator in our West Philadelphia ActionAIDS office, where she works primarily with French-speaking HIV positive immigrants from West Africa. Raphia is also the co-founder of Sharing Health and Hope in Cameroon Africa (SHAHICA), a nonprofit organization providing HIV prevention and treatment access in Raphia’s hometown of Foumban, Cameroon. ActionAIDS is proud to support Raphia’s work in Africa.

Founded in 2006, Sharing Health and Hope in Cameroon Africa (SHAHICA) provides free medical care, health education, HIV screening, and case management for adults and children in Foumban, a city of 83,500 in the West African nation of Cameroon. Our goal is that of empowering the population – particularly HIV/AIDS orphans, their caregivers, and youth – to make informed decisions regarding their health.

I have recently returned from a month-long visit to Foumban with SHAHICA’s outreach team. A nurse practitioner, a medical student, and a nursing student joined me in this project. We came together to work alongside 15 local medical providers and lay volunteers.

More than half of the Cameroonian population lacks access to appropriate medical care; overone-third lacks access to proper education. Cameroon has an HIV prevalence rate of 4.5 percent– one of the highest rates in West Africa. There are currently more 330,000 children orphanedby HIV.  Although the government of Cameroon has made anti-retroviral treatment available at no cost to HIV-positive children and adults, many problems remain in the acquisition of the medication and the proper management of the illness. Of all children eligible for treatment in Cameroon, only 13 percent are currently receiving it.

You may wonder what continues to drive the team back to Foumban year after year. I wish the answer was because of the beautiful smiles we get to see on our children’s faces when we are there.  Although this is an undeniable perk, our motivation also comes from the work that needs to be done in Foumban surrounding HIV related stigma and care.  Children are still victimized because of their illness, rejected from schools, prevented from using public transportation, and kept home in hiding by caregivers so that people will not see the family as being “cursed”. For the few individuals who do overcome the stigma and try to reach for help, access to care is so difficult that more often than not they give up on acquiring the care they need. Currently the closest hospital where HIV-positive patients can receive a CD4 reading and obtain their HIV medication is 3 hours away by bus, a trip that many cannot afford financially or are too sick to undertake and be accepted on public transportation.

This past January our visit had a special sense of urgency: two of our HIV-positive children who were on HIV medications died during the past 6 months. This, along with the knowledge of low CD4 counts for some of our other children, made it especially urgent that we plan some type of intervention to prevent needless death and illness in some of the other HIV-positive children in the program. We also wanted to oversee construction of the roof of the Community Day Center, which was completed while we were there! We are now working on raising money for doors, windows, a ceiling, and electricity.

For the future, I am now working on going back in December 2014. Foumban will be hosting a big cultural festival and many people will be coming from all around the country for the three days of festivities. My goal is to offer 3,000 HIV tests in 3 days and to distribute 5,000 condoms. This will be a great opportunity for us to reach many people at once, a great opportunity to advance the HIV prevention mission of SHAHICA. For more information about our work in Cameroon, please visit shahica.org.