UNICEF applauds South African Government's new HIV strategy
3 December, Pretoria – United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) welcomes the momentous and historic decision by the Government of South Africa to greatly expand access to antiretroviral treatment (ART) towards universal access for the country’s women and children who are living with HIV/AIDS as well as for prevention of new infections amongst children. By adopting the new HIV guidelines on treatment issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and making these services available at every health facility, the country has committed itself to normalizing HIV as an integral part of primary health care services to save lives and prevent new infections.
“The Government of South Africa has demonstrated an unprecedented leadership, vision and compassion for its children and their future welfare. By tackling the HIV pandemic head on, the country will prevent new HIV infections, contribute to the reduction of under-five mortality and also prevent more children from being orphaned,” said Aida Girma, UNICEF South Africa Representative.
The measures announced by President Jacob Zuma at the country’s national World Aids Day commemoration build on the work already underway in the country to expand access to prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) to all women living with HIV/AIDS, increase the availability of early infant diagnosis and roll out paediatric treatment to HIV positive children.
Already through concerted efforts, coverage of PMTCT has increased from 15 percent in 2004 coverage to 73 percent and paediatric treatment has reached 61 percent of the estimated 94,000 children in need at the end of 2008. However, the majority of infants are not tested before six weeks and many still die undiagnosed and untreated.
The announcement to initiate treatment for all infants living with HIV/AIDS, regardless of their CD count will dramatically increase their chance of survival provided access to early infant diagnosis is improved. According to UNICEF, without appropriate treatment half of children with HIV will die from an HIV-related cause by their second birthday. Survival rates are up to 75 per cent higher for HIV-positive newborns who are diagnosed and begin treatment within their first 12 weeks.
By initiating treatment to all pregnant HIV positive women with a CD4 count of 350 or less or show with symptoms of illness, women will be less likely to pass the virus on to their unborn child but also be healthier to deliver and live longer to look after their children.
“We are eager to support the Government in this ambitious plan and ready to contribute to make sure all health facilities are equipped to deliver these critical services,” said UNICEF’s Aida Girma.
Many women and children, especially the poorest and most marginalized, drop out of treatment programmes due to the distance to the ART centers. By expanding these services to every health clinic, many of these barriers can be overcome.
UNICEF believes that wide scale availability of treatment, along with the nationwide voluntary testing campaign will go a long way in ensuring that no South African is afraid anymore to know his or her status which will contribute to creating a HIV free generation.
“In order to achieve this, however, prevention among young people is equally important,” said Aida Girma. “We thus encourage the government to also increase its efforts to scale up primary prevention. This is still the very best way to ensure that mothers and their children are protected from HIV in the first place.”