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Real lives

Keeping infants safe in India

Geeta (name changed), a 23-year-old woman in Chennai, India, had no reason to suspect that she was HIV-positive. She had been married for only two months when she became pregnant.

When a hospital counsellor at the antenatal clinic asked her if she would like to be tested, she said yes as a precautionary measure. When she got the results, she was devastated. She tested positive. She feared not only that she would pass the virus to her child, but that she would succumb to the disease in a few years, leaving her child orphaned. “When the counsellor told me that I was HIV-positive, I screamed and screamed and then I just wept. I knew what it meant,” Geeta said.

A pilot project sponsored by the Indian Government and UNICEF offered her some hope. In January 2000, the National AIDS Control Organization and UNICEF launched the Prevention of Parent-to-Child-Transmission project at 11 medical institutions in India. Three were in Chennai, capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which has one of highest HIV prevalence rates in the country. An estimated 1.5 per cent of the population is affected by HIV/AIDS. 

Like some 16,500 pregnant women who have benefited from the project, Geeta first went to the Rajah Ramawamy Mudaliar Maternity Hospital for antenatal care. At monthly sessions with specially-trained counsellors, women receive information about pregnancy, diet, exercise, breastfeeding and HIV/AIDS. They are also offered free HIV tests. If they test positive, they are offered free AZT treatment as well as iron and folic acid supplements.

Geeta was one of the lucky ones. She received treatment and her baby has tested negative for the disease.

Almost 4 million people live with HIV/AIDS in India, and some 30,000 babies are born HIV-positive each year. Although treatment is available at many clinics, many women fail to make use of it because of the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. Even Geeta has yet to tell her family that she is HIV-positive.

In October 2001, CIPLA, an Indian pharmaceutical company, began providing UNICEF with free Nevirapine for HIV-positive mothers and babies. Nevirapine is cheaper and administered more discreetly than AZT. More women are now seeking treatment.



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