Myanmar: Preventing mother to child transmission of HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic

Providing routine services for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV

May May Khin
UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2020/May May Khin
05 January 2021

MYAWADDY, Kayin 2021 - As the global pandemic continues to overstretch the health system with resources being redirected to COVID-19 prevention and control, Myanmar faces huge challenges in providing routine services for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV.

“We must ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not hinder our goal of an AIDS-free Myanmar by 2025,” said Dr. D Nyein Myat, the HIV/AIDS team leader of the National AIDS Programme in Myawaddy.  Kayin State in the southeast of Myanmar. “While at the same time we must protect our frontline health staff from coronavirus infection.” Dr. D Nyein Myat and her team are carrying out HIV counselling and testing in Shwe Myawaddy COVID-19 quarantine centre near the main Myawady border gate between Myanmar and Thailand where tens of thousands of returning migrant workers and their families, including pregnant women, have crossed since the first outbreak of COVID-19 early last year.

Over the past two decades, annual new HIV infections have been decreasing in Myanmar. According to UNAIDS, there were an estimated 11,000 people newly infected with HIV in 2018, a 2.5 time decrease from 2000. Importantly, Myanmar has been on track for the dual elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

UNICEF, as technical lead in the movement for Myanmar’s AIDS-free future, has worked closely with the Ministry of Health and Sports and the Ethnic Health Organization to promote cascade services for the prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission. During the pandemic, UNICEF has helped to minimize interruption of the different HIV interventions during all stages of mother to child transmission prevention while supporting safe working environments for healthcare workers. The key to achieve this is to adapt the way HIV prevention services are delivered.

In the new situation, as mobile and outreach sessions had to stop and people including those from hard-to-reach areas and pregnant women have to come to the health facility to access HIV services. As a result, they receive anti-retroviral drugs to last for six months instead of three to reduce the number of times they have to leave home. At the same time, they are provided with education on safety measures, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 test kits and hand sanitizers. HIV antibody test kits and reagents are also stockpiled to ensure frontline workers have sufficient essential products during times of COVID-19 travel restrictions. 

“I am keeping myself safe by wearing a mask and gloves while working with pregnant women as I deliver the prevention of mother-to-child transmission services,” said Naw Sah Moo Eh, a maternal and child health worker for the Ethnic Health Organization in Kyarinseikkyi Township, Kayin State. She is responsible for HIV education, counselling, testing and early referrals for anti-retroviral therapy. “In these pandemic days, the situation is critical and sometimes I get scared, but I do my best.”

“Whatever challenges we have, I am proud to be a health worker supporting people in need, especially vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, adolescent girls and people living with HIV/AIDS in this time of emergency,” added Dr. D Nyein Myat. – ENDS