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Dr Fatch Kalembo. Photo: Curtin University

Malawian nurse, academic travels far to help those back home

Malawi-born Dr Fatch Kalembo has seen first-hand the challenges that children living with HIV in the region face – and it’s his experience as a nurse that is shepherding his academic career.

After completing a bachelor of nursing at Kamuzu College of Nursing in Malawi, he was called in to work at Mwanza District Hospital on its paediatric and maternity wards. It was there that he noticed gaps in support for those in his care. By Kalembo’s reckoning, around 40 per cent of the kids coming through his wards had HIV.

Much of the HIV funding Malawi sees goes towards antiretroviral treatment (ART), Kalembo says, while the psychosocial aspect of care is neglected.

“There was a need to find a way in which to promote this type of psychosocial wellbeing of the children.”

His academic journey began when he was employed as a staff associate at Mzuzu University to teach student nurses and midwives.

Three years later, he received a scholarship to study a master’s degree in China. Shortly after returning to Malawi, Kalembo won Curtin University’s International Postgraduate Research Scholarship, enabling him to enrol in its PhD program.

“I thought I needed to do something [to] support these children, especially trying to help them understand their disease and develop resilience to the disease, and also fight stigma and discrimination.

“With this knowledge and expertise, and also the resources available to me, I think I can really make a big difference in the lives of sub-Saharan African children,” he says.

Although Malawi has made a lot of progress reducing infection rates in recent years, it has one of the highest HIV rates in the world.

The country has signed up to the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets, which sees nations shoot for 90 per cent of their people living with HIV to know their status, to be on ART, and for 90 per cent of those on ART to have viral load suppression.

Kalembo’s work aims to help. He says there are many children aged between six and 12 years who are living with the disease but aren’t aware of their status.

Behind the low rate of disclosure is the fear that children won’t cope with the information, and a lack of confidence, especially among primary caregivers, surrounding such discussions.
“We know this disease is highly stigmatised, so parents, and the primary caregivers, healthcare workers and community leaders fear that if they disclose to a child, the child can tell other people, and these people can start stigmatising this child,” Kalembo explains.

Without knowing that they have HIV, Kalembo says it’s very hard to help children comply with ART regimes. “It’s very important that we find ways to at least help children know that they have the disease,” he says.

Kalembo has received a number of awards and scholarships for his work. UNESCO and MERCK named his project one of the best for African PhD students. For this, he was awarded a scholarship to present at the UNESCO-MERCK Africa Research Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2016.

He said he was humbled by the UNESCO nod and added it highlights the importance of his project’s focus.

Kalembo’s PhD supervisor, Curtin’s Dr Garth Kendall, said he was proud of Kalembo for his work and achievements.

Kendall said he would like to see more scholarships for health professionals to come from African countries to study in Australia.

“There’s nothing more we could do that would be of greater benefit to people in these low-income countries in the world than to help train the future leaders in academia.”

The next steps in Kalembo’s project will involve the creation of a series of children’s books that will help inform young people who are HIV positive about the illness, and help adults approach the delicate conversations surrounding disclosure.

Should the researchers discover the books are helping children learn about HIV, they will roll them out to other sub Saharan African countries.

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