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Zambia, 18 May 2011: HIV testing and treatment programme protects children's lives

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2345/Nesbitt
A mother holds her six-week-old son at a health centre in Zambia, which provides vital treatment to pregnant women living with HIV and works to eliminate new HIV infections in infants and children.

NEW YORK, USA, 18 May 2011- Mother’s Day is celebrated on different dates in countries around the world, most commonly the second Sunday in May. But wherever and whenever it is observed, the day pays tribute to a universal form of devotion: a mother’s love and sacrifice for her children. Here is one example of that devotion in action.

Mirriam Chongo lives in a rural district of Zambia, in Southern Africa. When she learned she was pregnant, she went to a local clinic for an antenatal check-up. Health workers examined her and administered routine tests.

Medical examinations are always fraught with anxiety. On this occasion, even more so for Mirriam. She tested positive for HIV.

This information was crucial not just to her, but also to the child she carried. Babies can be infected with HIV during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. It is estimated that more than 1,000 babies continue to be born with HIV every day. Without treatment, many of them will die before their second birthday.

Life-saving programme

Fortunately, Mirriam’s clinic provided a service that offered her hope: a programme to lower her baby’s risk of infection.

The programme works by administering antiretroviral drugs to mothers and babies during the period when infection is possible, and giving psycho-social support to participating families. Children receiving this treatment are tested at regular intervals to confirm they have not contracted the virus.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2248/Nesbitt
Peter at his home in the Zambian village of Mwamfule. His mother learned she was HIV-positive during an antenatal check up. Thanks to early intervention, he remains HIV-free.

The programme is comprehensive and lasts from early pregnancy until after a baby is weaned. It is also rigorous. For the treatment to work, Mirriam needed to keep regular appointments with health workers for drugs, counselling and check-ups, and maintain a medication schedule.

Mirriam’s one wish was to protect her unborn child from infection. So she entered the programme, and, in time, gave birth to a little boy. She named him Peter.

Despite the challenges Mirriam and her new son faced, they were more fortunate than many. About 20 percent of pregnant women in the developing world do not receive antenatal care, according to latest estimates.

Even if they are found to be living with the virus, these women may not have the opportunity to enter a programme to eliminate new infections in infants, as Mirriam did. In 2009, only an estimated 53 percent of pregnant women living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries received antiretroviral drugs to reduce the risk of their babies contracting HIV.

Zambia’s government is working hard to bring HIV testing and treatment to those who need it. But for many, especially in rural areas, these services remain out of reach. And in the current economic climate, simply maintaining an already established service is proving difficult.

The gift of life

That is where each of us can act on behalf of mothers and babies. A gift of $60 will buy HIV tests for more than 50 pregnant women. At just over $1 per test, the value in terms of life and health far exceeds the cost. Gifts like these make ideal Mother’s Day presents, extending the true spirit of motherhood to women and children in need.

Mirriam and Peter show how important gifts like these can be. One year after his birth, the little boy’s latest HIV test confirms that he is living free of the virus. His mother’s commitment to long months of treatment is succeeding. This would have been impossible without the one critical test that revealed so much to Mirriam at her antenatal examination.

The usual Mother’s Day gifts – flowers, sweets, a meal in a restaurant – are certainly enjoyable, but the pleasure they bring is fleeting. The knowledge that a donation in the name of one mother has helped dozens of others will endure for years. On this Mother’s Day, consider making a life-saving gift through UNICEF to help mothers and babies like Mirriam and Peter.

 

 
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