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Lesotho makes progress in prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV

© UNICEF video
Lesotho's most notable success in response to the AIDS crisis has been the country’s rapid expansion of services aimed at preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

By Kun Li

‘Towards Universal Access’, a new report on scaling up HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts, highlights gains in HIV testing and counselling, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and other areas. Here is a related story.

MASERU, Lesotho, 30 September 2009 – With nearly a quarter of its adult population living with HIV, the Kingdom of Lesotho has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world.

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Average life expectancy here is just over 40 years, and the country is burdened by poverty and food insecurity. Nevertheless, Lesotho has embarked on a journey to reverse the spread of HIV – and to make AIDS prevention, treatment and care accessible to all.

“The bottom line is that we cannot afford to have people infecting other people, and we cannot afford to have so many people dying and leaving their children behind,” said Lesotho’s Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Dr. Mphu Ramatlapeng.

Significant progress

Through its country-wide ‘Know your status’ campaign and a renewed national policy and strategic plan on HIV and AIDS, Lesotho has made significant progress in getting more people tested for HIV. At the same time, more of those in need are getting into anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment.

The most notable success, however, has been the country’s rapid expansion of prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (also known as PMTCT) services.

Malehloa, 32, discovered her HIV-positive status when she was pregnant with her second child. She couldn’t believe the news and tried to hide her status from her family because of widespread discrimination and stigma. With a supportive partner by her side, she was able to follow her treatment regimen rigorously, and she gave birth to a healthy baby free of HIV.

© UNICEF video
Wider access to voluntary testing and anti-retroviral treatment for pregnant women and mothers in Lesotho makes it much more likely that their newborn children will be free of HIV.

Progress on PMTCT

That experience inspired Malehloa to join Mothers2Mothers, a non-governmental organization that supports mothers who are living with HIV, helping them to live healthy lives and protect their babies from infection.

“I am helping mothers to be like me and to have babies like mine,” said Malehloa, “Since I started with Mothers2Mothers, I have helped some 350 mothers. When you see a positive baby in the facility, even though it is very rare, it makes me feel that I am not doing anything, that I am not doing my job.”

In 2006, only 5 percent of HIV positive pregnant women in Lesotho received PMTCT services; today, the coverage stands at 42 per cent. Out of 207 health facilities around the country, 180 of them now provide PMTCT services.

‘An inspiration for me’

During a recent trip to Lesotho, where he visited Malehloa, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé took note of Lesotho’s achievement.

“What I saw is about social change, social revolution. It is about helping a pregnant woman who just found out that she was infected with HIV,” remarked Mr. Sidibé.

“Malehloa is an inspiration for me,” he added. “She completely changed my perspective on how we should really move forward – why we need to give more knowledge and more capacity to people so that they can become agents of change, so that they can become actors to transform our society.”

Universal access by 2010

Since countries at the UN General Assembly committed to the goal of achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care by 2010, more and more countries are making a firm commitment to PMTCT as an effective strategy against the AIDS epidemic.

Lesotho’s achievement is mirrored not only in other African countries, but throughout the rest of the world.

According to a new report released by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, progress is being made in achieving universal access. Some of the most impressive advances have taken place in sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest-hit by the AIDS epidemic.

But the report also reveals gaps – such as pregnant women and children still accessing treatment at lower rates than the general adult population. In particular, there is a gap between the number of women who currently have access to ARVs for preventing mother-to-child transmission and the number who must be reached to achieve the UN target of 80 per cent coverage.

With 33 million people living with HIV worldwide, the epidemic continues to be a major global health challenge. But the progress in Lesotho and elsewhere has given people hope that the world is now closer than ever to virtual elimination of mother-to- child transmission of HIV – and a step closer to realizing the goal of a generation born free of AIDS.




UNICEF correspondent Vivian Siu reports on Lesotho's progress in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
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