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HIV & AIDS and Children

Mother-to-child HIV transmission can be reduced by over 90 per cent

© UNICEF Nigeria/2005/Yahaya
Dr. Rima Salah, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF, Prof. Sheila Tlou, Minister of Health, Botswana, Dr. Nafis Sadik, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS, in Abuja, at the Global Partners Forum on the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of the HIV Virus.

By Beatrice Karanja and Yves Willemot

ABUJA, Nigeria, 5 December 2005 – UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah joined a panel of representatives from governments, civil society and other UN agencies in Abuja ahead of this week’s 14th International Conference on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA). The group called for programmes which help prevent transmission of HIV between mother and child to be made more accessible.

While mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV has been virtually eliminated in industrialized countries, services fall alarmingly short of the needs in low- and middle-income countries, said participants at a high-level ‘Global Partners Forum’ to discuss the issue, which took place in Abuja from 1 – 3 December. Participants underlined that a lack of adequate services have led to more than 600,000 new and preventable infections and 570,000 deaths from HIV-related illnesses in children under 15 years of age in 2005. Some 90 per cent of these occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

At the press conference Lucy Auwalu, a young mother of two children, explained the painful period she went through when she tested HIV-positive: “I was scared. I thought my life was over. Still I kept my hope to have children. As a young African wife, I knew that this was also expected from me. But I wanted to have healthy, HIV-negative children. I discovered about the programs to prevent mother-to-child transmission through the internet. Today thanks to the services I got, I have two healthy children.”

The world has the tools

The transmission of HIV from an infected mother to her child can be prevented almost entirely through a package of interventions. These include antiretroviral drug use, safer delivery practices, and infant feeding counselling and support. Such interventions are integrated and linked with measures to prevent HIV infection in women in the first place, improve sexual and reproductive health, and provide care, treatment and support services to all infected women and their families. Dr. Isabelle De Zoysa, senior advisor on HIV/AIDS at the WHO stressed: “We now have the tools, knowledge and experience to reduce the transmission from mother-to-child to a minimum, but we need the political will and the programmatical drive to make it happen.”

© UNICEF Nigeria/2005/Yahaya
Lucy Auwalu, an HIV-positive mother who succeeded in preventing the transmission of the virus to her two children, talking to members of the press about her experience.

Governments can make a huge difference. Botswana’s Minister of Health, Professor Sheila Tlou, said it is a question of making the right choices: “We cannot hide behind a lack of funds and human resources. We have to make a major shift, fight corruption and reallocate an important part of the governmental resources to fight the transmission from mother to child effectively. Botswana is investing 25 per cent of its resources to fight HIV/AIDS to have an AIDS-free future generation, more than it allocates to the military. Our enemy is inside to the country, not outside.” The world has to capitalize on the experiences gained in the past. “We have to support the capacities that exist at the community level,” said Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, Assistant US Global AIDS Coordinator.

Time for action is now

Rima Salah, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, said that efforts will have to be scaled up quickly: “Every day there are nearly 1,800 new HIV infections in children under 15, mostly associated with mother-to-child-transmission. We know what it takes to prevent these deaths, but so far we are simply not doing it. To make a real difference UNICEF has significantly increased spending in the area of HIV/AIDS – prevention of mother-to-child transmission being one of the key areas. Fourteen per cent of the UNICEF’s overall budget is now spent on HIV/AIDS. In pursue of the achievement of the UN goal to provide PMTCT services to 80 per cent of women in need by 2010, we have launched the UNITE FOR CHILDREN  UNITE AGAINST AIDS campaign with our partners.”

As part of the forum participants developed a strategy and agreed on a call to action to galvanize world support for the elimination of HIV transmission to children by adopting a new global standard of care for preventing MTCT. The strategy outlines the ultimate aim of providing universal access to services to prevent HIV transmission to women, infants and young children. Currently less than 10 per cent of women globally have access to MTCT prevention services. “We have to increase our efforts to make sure that many more women do have access to the information and the services to avoid further mother-to-child transmission,” appealed Lucy Auwalu of the non-governmental organization Women and Children of Hope.  



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