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Preventing mother-to-child transmission to fight HIV/AIDS in Malawi

© UNICEF Malawi/2007
A couple outside the Mwanza District Hospital in southern Malawi, where the programme for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is much sought-after.

By Gaelle Sevenier

LILONGWE, Malawi, 25 March 2008 – Mwanza District Hospital, located near the southern border of Malawi, provides crucial care to many of the country’s most vulnerable families. Among them were two young couples who recently arrived at the hospital days apart with different stories but similar needs.

The couples were anxious to visit with staff in the hospital’s prevention of mothers-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme, which tackles a broad range of issues presented by HIV and AIDS.

After a quick pin prick and a wait of less than an hour, a nurse took one of the couples, Mary and Devison, behind closed doors to give them their results. Both were HIV-positive, and Mary was four months pregnant.

Living with HIV, expecting a child

As part of the initiative to promote HIV testing and counselling for couples, the hospital was eager to provide them with the full range of PMTCT services. In most cases, a lack of spousal and family support is one of the major obstacles facing people with HIV and AIDS. Providing testing for couples is a way to mobilize such support, within the community.

The other couple, Mavis and James, were also living with HIV and expecting a child. Because of the Mwanza hospital’s programme, they had taken all the preventive steps available, and Mavis received medical guidance throughout her pregnancy.

When Mavis finally delivered her daughter, she immediately handed her over to the medical staff so that they could administer to her the antiretroviral drops that have proven effective in preventing HIV infection. This medical intervention is known to cut the risk of mother-to-child transmission in half. 

© UNICEF Malawi/2007
A family in Malawi, where almost 1 million people are living with HIV out of a population of 12 million.

The road to prevention

The groundbreaking PMTCT programme, supported by UNICEF, helps health workers administer services related to AIDS education and awareness, infant and young child feeding, antiretroviral treatment and social support.

“More and more people are tested because the policies and guidelines for health workers are now in place” says UNICEF Representative Aida Girma. “Testing is the key to both prevention and treatment. Since men take a critical role in deciding about the treatments, it is important to involve them.”

In a population of only 12 million, Malawi has almost 1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, more than 90,000 of whom are children. These alarming numbers underscore the necessity of providing women like Mary and Mavis affordable early diagnoses and treatments to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

Every year, an estimated 30,000 newborns in Malawi are infected with HIV by mother-to-child transmission, and UNICEF aims to markedly reduce that number. Given the magnitude of the problem, UNICEF allocates 30 per cent of its Malawi budget to fight HIV/AIDS; the hope is that PMTCT services will pave the way for a decline in paediatric infection rates.

‘HIV is everybody’s business’

Today, there are more than 152 PMTCT sites located throughout Malawi. Led by the Ministry of Health with support from development partners, the PMTCT Acceleration Plan intends to reach all maternal and child health facilities in order to ensure that every pregnant woman knows her HIV status and receives the proper care.

“There is a strong political will to fight HIV/AIDS in Malawi” said UNICEF Representative in Malawi Aida Girma. “There is still a lot of work to be done. UNICEF has to think universally, making sure that all children in all districts are addressed, and linking what is on the ground with the policy level. UNICEF has been actively campaigning to make sure children are given attention. We want to make sure HIV is everybody’s business.”

UNICEF hopes that by supporting HIV/AIDS services such as PMTCT, couples like Mary and Devison, Mavis and James will have access to the education and medicine that they so undeniably deserve and so desperately need.



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