VANCOUVER, Washington — AIDS transmission from mother to child is a devastating, yet almost completely preventable circumstance. Former United States president George W. Bush established PEPFAR, or The Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, in 2003, and the program continues to provide treatment today. However, cases of mother to child AIDS transmission are all too common in PEPFAR countries, which are typically located in sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe are just a few on the extensive list.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services has released alarming statistics regarding mother to child AIDS transmission. Due to undiagnosed and/or untreated cases of maternal AIDS, 35 percent of pregnant women transmit HIV to their children, which lead to 1,000 new cases of pediatric HIV daily. Additionally, of the 370,000 new annual infections, 85 percent of the cases are concentrated in 25 sub-Saharan African countries. Though PEPFAR invested $21 billion between 2004 and 2011, only 28 percent of 1.27 million children in need of treatment have received it.
While these statistics are bleak, new developments coming out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham are promising. According the UAB News, associate professor Janet Turan will be conducting a study related to “reducing the adverse effects of HIV-related stigma among pregnant women in Kenya.” According to PEPFAR, 60 percent of those who suffer from HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women. Turan states that both men and women often refuse HIV testing and consequentially do not receive necessary treatment. Withholding HIV status is also overwhelmingly common. This perpetuates the problem for both partners and potential children.
As a possible solution to this problem, Turan has proposed creating “home-based” health care, as opposed to having men and women come into clinics, which increases social stigma. Information, testing, and treatment could all be provided from the home.
The opportunity to administer proper treatment could be life saving. During a presentation given to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Lynn Mofenson, stated that “use of combination antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy” can “rapidly and durably suppress viral load,” which would make for a safer pregnancy and potentially HIV-free child.
Postnatal treatment is paramount as well. According to Mofenson, breastfeeding in developing countries is often necessary, but is also “associated with high rates of HIV transmission.” Following clinical trials of drug treatments, the World Health Organization released guidelines for a preventing “Postnatal Mother to Child Transmission” (PMTCT.) Following these treatment guidelines, a PMTCT Program was put into effect in South Africa, where widespread success was found. Mofenson states that “WHO set a new goal to virtually eliminate new pediatric HIV infections and improve maternal survival by 2015”.
Mofenson’s findings, along with Janet Turan’s new initiative, may lead to a promising future for PEPFAR countries. In addition to HIV treatments, Mofenson spoke of family planning as an important component in AIDS prevention. Access to contraceptives and resources for initiating a dialogue between partners on family planning could reduce unwanted pregnancy as well as cut back on medical risks to both partners and children. While Mofenson states that there is still a long road ahead, the groundwork has been laid for reduction of the spread of HIV.