Source: UNAIDS
The elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Eastern and Southern Africa has come a step closer with the endorsement of a new regional framework following a three-day consultation in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this month.

The consultation brought together government representatives from 15 high-burden countries[i], civil society organizations and donors. They were joined by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

In 2009 some 370,000 young children were newly infected with HIV. It was noted that although the scale of the problem of mother-to-child transmission of HIV cannot be underestimated, there is much that can be done. According to Elhadj As Sy, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, “We now have the leadership at all levels to bring this number down. We know what works. Now is the time to act and make a difference. An AIDS-free generation by 2015 is possible.”

Championing both new and existing interventions

Partners endorsed the UNAIDS call for the virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015 and adherence to the new WHO guidelines that recommend giving pregnant women and new mothers a combination of three antiretroviral drugs. They also pledged to vigorously pursue all four components of the internationally agreed UN strategy to dramatically reduce mother-to-child transmission.

There was an acknowledgement that a different approach is needed if the elimination target is to be achieved. A series of priority actions—which include enhanced support for existing programmes and strategies to implement new ones—were defined:

  • Improving coverage access and use of services
  • Strengthening the quality of existing interventions
  • Integrating efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission into routine antenatal and reproductive health services
  • Making paediatric HIV care a routine part of child health services
  • Promoting health systems development
  • Improving measurement of programme performance and impact assessment
  • Engaging communities more fully

The partners also agreed to work on ensuring that all pregnant women and their partners are counselled and tested during their first antenatal care visit.

Room for optimism

Although many pregnant women are still falling through the treatment coverage net, in recent years scaled up prevention of vertical transmission efforts have been effective. According to UNAIDS 2010 estimates, in southern Africa in 2009 an estimated 130,000 infants were newly infected, more than 30% fewer than in 2004. In Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland treatment coverage has reached more than 80%[ii]. Given these figures, and the possibility that they can be achieved across the region, participants in the consultation expressed optimism.

“If countries continue rapid scale up of quality, comprehensive PMTCT service access, the goal of elimination of HIV transmission from mother to infants by 2015 can be achieved,” said Helen Jackson, Senior HIV Prevention Advisor for UNAIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa. “We have joined forces to make sure this happens.”

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