"I was getting sick all the time and could not understand why," she says. "I kept taking drugs and pain killers, but kept losing weight. I went from 70 to 28 kilos. I knew I was dying."
Bella and her five-year-old daughter tested positive for HIV. She now says that she was so sick and desperate, she was just waiting to die. One day, a neighbour told her about the Kalembe Lembe Paediatric Hospital in Kinshasa.
At the UNICEF-supported facility - which also receives assistance from the Clinton Foundation and other partners - Bella got nutritional supplements, antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for herself and her daughter, and counselling.
'Back from death's door'
"I could not believe that after just a few weeks, I was so much better and was gaining weight," recalls Bella, who now weighs 60 kilos. "Then I joined the voluntary group so that I could be helpful to others. I wanted to be part of the hope-givers team."
The 'hope-givers' are parents who are themselves affected or infected by HIV. They volunteer at with the hospital, participating in counselling sessions, making home visits and helping other HIV-affected families with medical, psychological and nutritional support.
Asked why she is in this group, another volunteer, Vivi, smiles and replies: "I am not infected myself, but I take care of my sister's infected child. She and her husband died a few years ago when the girl was only eight. She got very sick one day and I was advised to take her here for testing.
"I really thought she was going to die at that young age," Vivi continues. "I kept praying for her. After only a few days of treatment she started feeling better and regaining weight. Today, she is 12 and in good shape. She came back from death's door."
Work to be done
About 3.2 per cent of Congolese are living with HIV. And because of the instability that has followed the country's civil conflict of the 1990s, women are subject to gender-based violence that makes them more vulnerable to the virus.
In 2005, of the 1.3 million people in DR Congo infected with HIV, about 100,000 were pregnant women.
UNICEF is the lead UN agency in the areas of prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, paediatric HIV/AIDS treatment, and care and support for orphans and other vulnerable children.
But reports from the national AIDS programme in 2007 show that much work remains to be done. While 30 per cent of the country's health zones have integrated PMTCT services, many women who are tested for HIV do not come back for their results. And while an estimated 90,000 pregnant women living with HIV need ARVs to prevent transmission to their children, only 3,400 receive treatment.
by Fatoumata Thiam Diallo