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South Africa succeeds in saving more children from being born HIV positive

UNICEF South Africa/2010/Schermbrucker
© UNICEF South Africa/2010/Schermbrucker

July 2012 - More babies are being born HIV negative than ever before, a new study on the transmission of mother to child transmission of HIV in South Africa has revealed.  In 2011, 107,000 out of 117,000 babies tested HIV negative at four to eight weeks, bringing the country a step closer to meeting the global goal to eliminate mother to child transmission.
“To say we that we have saved the lives of over 100,000 infants must be celebrated by us all,” said Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, the South African Minister of Health, at a press event announcing the results.

The results are a significant milestone in South Africa’s efforts to meet goals outlined in the Global Plan to eliminate new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive.  In 2011, an estimated 300,000 children were newly infected in Sub Saharan Africa.

For a country which has grappled with high HIV prevalence rates and 5.6 million people living positive, the dramatic drop from 8 per cent in 2008 to 3.5 per cent in 2010 and in 2011 to 2.7 per cent is a sign that the right mix of leadership, investment and community outreach are starting to demonstrate results. 

“The exposure rate was the same as 2010 but the infection rate of HIV had reduced to 2.7 nationally.  There are variations amongst provinces but there has been a significant decline in children being infected with HIV in all provinces and a dramatic drop in four provinces.” explained Dr Ameena Goga, Medical Research Council of South Africa, the chief author of the report.

The research, with 12,000 mother-baby-pairs was conducted between August 2011 and March 2012, with nurses visiting 580 facilities throughout the country and interviewing consenting mothers and conducting dried blood spot tests for the infants.

In 2009 on World AIDS day, President Zuma announced a major policy shift, stating the country would follow the guidelines that encouraged all positive mothers to go on antiretroviral therapy from 14 weeks and to keep babies on antiretroviral treatment for six weeks or throughout breastfeeding.  This, along with a shift in the infant feeding policy to encourage all mothers regardless of their status to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life, has been critical in the drop in transmission rates.

Although South Africa only started its prevention of mother to child transmission programme in the public health system in 2001, the strong leadership and shift in Government policy, and the adoption of the new WHO protocols, has contributed to the country’s recent success in reducing new infections amongst children.

South Africa is one of 22 countries in the world, 21 of them in Sub Saharan Africa, who account for 90 per cent of all new infections among children and aim result to reduce transmission rates to 2 per cent by 2015 – a target the Government of South Africa now feels confident it can achieve.

“Women living with HIV have welcomed the leadership and commitment by Governments and development partners to renew the energy to meet these targets,” said Dr. Siobhan Crowley UNICEF South Africa’s Chief of Child Survival. 

She acknowledged though that there are still too many women not receiving the full package of services. This is as a result of some women coming in late for antenatal care and thereby starting late on treatment, while some mothers and babies are not tracked after delivery.

Dr Crowley encouraged more community involvement in the design of health care programmes, especially those to reach the poorest and most vulnerable women and children. “It is not just enough to create demand for these services but to sustain engagement with these services,” she explained.



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