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Make Every Day Mother's Day

By Michel Sidibé*

As excited as expectant parents are about bringing a child into the world, it can be an anxious time. So imagine the concern of soon-to-be parents when the mother is living with HIV. They know that without treatment, there is a one-in-three chance that their baby could be born with HIV.

This Mother's Day, I am asking everyone to help bring future families more joy and less anxiety. There are three simple things we can all do to ensure babies everywhere can be born free from HIV. Together we can go from 390,000 children becoming infected with HIV each year to zero.

First, get the facts. We can dramatically reduce the risk of HIV transmission to a child to less than 5% if a pregnant woman living with HIV has access to antiretroviral drugs.

In my last post, I talked about a couples' approach to HIV -- I could just as easily have been talking about a parents approach.

It is estimated that nearly half of people living with HIV who are in a long-term sexual relationship have an HIV-negative partner. If these couples know their HIV status, they can plan to protect themselves and their children.

HIV-infected fathers who take antiretroviral treatment will protect their partner from getting infected with HIV and, in turn, protect their children. During pregnancy, a woman doubles the risk of acquiring HIV from her infected partner. That is why a particularly effective programme in Rwanda encourages both the father and mother to attend all the prenatal check-ups together.

For a woman who is living with HIV, antiretroviral treatment reduces the risk of HIV infection to her partner and child at the same time.

In Africa they say, "It takes a village to grow a child." It also takes a village to give birth to an HIV-free child. Supporting parents, especially the mother, through pregnancy and breastfeeding, requires the support of an entire community -- providing services to ensure a safe birth, good nutritional status, access to medicines and other social services.

Right now, making sure pregnant women have access to HIV treatment is one of the most effective and cost-saving measures we have available in the overall AIDS response. Not only can we help ensure a baby is born HIV free, but in many cases we are also saving the life of the mother. About 42 000 pregnant women die each year from HIV and pregnancy related illnesses.

Second, get the message out. I was just in India with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visiting a prenatal clinic in Mumbai. While on this trip, and in my other travels, I spoke with families to learn about the challenges and obstacles for people who are trying to access life-saving treatment and prevention options. It is critical that we identify these obstacles and their solutions and share them far and wide.

Parents say that the most important goal for them is to give birth to a healthy child, whatever the cost may be. They are not asking for more than many take for granted -- basic health care. We have to meet their aspirations and create expectations everywhere that all children can be born free from HIV.

Countries like Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and South Africa are well on their way to eliminating HIV infections among children. In each of these high-burden countries, coverage of HIV services for pregnant women is above 80%.

But in countries such as Nigeria -- where nearly 70,000 babies are born with HIV each year -- we can do a lot more to make sure information and services reach families in need.

World leaders have committed to the Global Plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive. By focusing on the 22 most affected countries, we can deploy our knowledge and resources for a maximum impact.

Finally, make every day Mother's Day. All families need support, near and far. And help can come in many forms. For Charity, her biggest supporter is her husband. She was diagnosed with HIV a decade ago, and their son Jenai was born HIV-free four years ago.

Charity says that without the support of her husband Ibrahim, she would not have dreamed of having a baby. Ibrahim is HIV-negative and, unlike her previous suitors, he was supportive when Charity told him that she was living with HIV. He told her real love is not conditional, and that included her HIV status. The couple now share their story with others.

As a father and grandfather, I know of no greater joy than to hold a healthy and happy baby in your arms. This Mother's Day, join UNAIDS as we support and celebrate families and work to ensure babies everywhere are born free from HIV.

 

*Michel Sidibé is the Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)

 

 
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