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South Africa

New HIV testing method allows early diagnosis for infants in South Africa

© UNICEF/ South Africa/2006/Crowe
Nurse Nomphumelelo Dhlamini pricks blood for HIV test at Mseleni Hospital, Umkhanyakude Health District, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

By Sarah Crowe

At the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada next week, more than 20,000 experts will gather to share information on slowing the onslaught of the pandemic. This story highlights one of the kinds of intervention that will be on the conference agenda.

MSELENI, South Africa, 9 August 2006 – A new method of testing for paediatric AIDS is saving the lives of babies and has led to more than a large increase in the number of infants being treated with anti-retroviral medications (ARVs) here in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Until now, diagnosis of HIV in children under 18 months of age has been something of a guessing game. But since late last year, a dry blood sampling method has made it possible for 500 infants in far-flung rural areas to be tested and treated – up from 100 infants on ARVs a year ago.

The method involves taking a few drops of a baby’s blood and blotting it on paper; it requires no ice or cold-chain equipment to preserve blood. And the dry blood samples can be transported miles away to a laboratory, where the paper can be dissolved and the blood tested. In theory, results can be available within as little as 16 hours.

© UNICEF/ South Africa/2006/Crowe
Dr. Victor Fredlund at the Paediatric Ward of Mseleni Hospital in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Benefits of early treatment

“It’s very appropriate because it’s easily transportable,” said Dr. Victor Fredlund of Mseleni Hospital. “It doesn’t require any special transport medium, doesn’t require any special time. There’s no rush. It’s just got to be collected correctly. Dry blood sampling is obviously much easier to do than specimens that need to be spun down in the middle of the night before they’re put on ice.

“Initially, we were not getting any children under a year and a half onto treatment because you needed to wait 15 to 18 months after delivery before we could even start,” added Dr. Fredlund. “Now we can find out at three to four months.”

For children living with HIV, getting treatment as early as possible can make a difference between thriving and just surviving.

© UNICEF/ South Africa/2006/Crowe
Nurse Nomphumelelo Dhlamini of Mseleni Hospital gets the last drops of blood for HIV test.

‘My mind is at ease’

Wandile is one of those children. She’s six years old but looks half her age. Her mother died of AIDS when she was a toddler. Today her ‘gogo’ (her elderly and ailing granny) and her ARVs are Wandile’s lifeline.

For years, the young girl withered away, unable to walk or talk. Since beginning treatment, she has bounced back. Because she was not tested and treated until late last year, she needs occupational therapy to help her catch up to her lost milestones.

Wandile’s grandmother has seen remarkable improvement since her granddaughter began ARV treatments.

“In the hospital they gave me medicine and taught me when to administer it,” she recalled. “They said the child would be a different person, and it happened just as they said. The child started standing up and walking. She started speaking audibly and intelligently. Now she is better. My mind is at ease.”

Through the UNITE FOR CHILDREN  UNITE AGAINST AIDS global campaign, UNICEF and its partners have made paediatric treatment and testing a high priority to try and ensure that children like Wandile get on ARVs as early as possible. UNICEF has supported early testing by purchasing equipment and training through the Centre for Rural Health, which aims to bridge the divide between the urban rich and rural poor in South Africa.




9 August 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on a new HIV testing method providing early diagnosis for infants in South Africa.
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9 August 2006:
Professor Steve Reid of the Centre for Rural Health at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal discusses why AIDS programmes in South Africa must give priority to the nation's most vulnerable children.
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