11 January 2010

Africa: UN Seeks to Virtually Eliminate Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV/Aids

The United Nations is seeking to virtually eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, where 390,000 infants became infected with the virus that causes AIDS in 2008, through the use of antiretroviral drugs during and after delivery.

"AIDS has become the leading cause of death among infants and young children in much of sub-Saharan Africa," Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Executive Director Michel Sidibé said during a visit to Sauri in western Kenya, one of the villages in the so-called Millennium Villages Project (MVP).

The MVP, a partnership between the UN Development Programme (UNDP'), The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, Millennium Promise and local governments, provides a new approach to fighting poverty and achieving the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that seek to reduce a host of social ills by 2015. The sixth MDG focuses on combating HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases.

"We have seen that it is possible to virtually eliminate infant HIV infections in high-income countries through HIV testing of pregnant women, contraception, and the use of antiretroviral drugs during and after delivery," Mr. Sidibé said. "Now we must apply the knowledge and tools to create an AIDS-free generation in Africa and the rest of the world.

"The move towards universal prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission requires translating scientific evidence into routine practice. With a concerted effort, we can fully curb the mother-to-child transmission of HIV and bear witness as an HIV-free generation is born in Africa and the world," he added.

UNAIDS and MVP joined forces in September to strengthen prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT) services at the village level with the aim of creating "MTCT-free zones." In the Millennium Villages, PMTCT services are integrated within the maternal-child health package and a continuum of care is offered to the mother from the antenatal period through delivery and the postnatal period.

Levels of HIV testing among pregnant women in the Millennium Village sites have increased from 10 per cent at baseline to over 60 per cent in three years. The UNAIDS-MVP partnership will further improve on these gains by decreasing the incidence of HIV among women, meeting needs for modern contraceptives and blocking transmission from mothers to their babies.

"UNAIDS brings unrivalled global expertise, leadership, and detailed strategies to the fight against HIV/AIDS, including PMTCT," said Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute and Special Advisor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"By teaming up, UNAIDS and MVP will design and implement a powerful system to bring PMTCT to near zero, and do so in a way that can be utilized in other parts of Africa and the world," added Mr. Sachs, who accompanied Mr. Sidibé during the five-day visit to Kenya.

Now covering some 500,000 people and growing, MVP is showing the development community worldwide that an integrated package of development interventions, supported by a modest financial investment - about $110 per person annually over five to ten years - will be instrumental to achieving the MDGs, specifically the fourth goal to reduce child mortality, the fifth to improve maternal health, and the sixth.

As a result of the project, there are now six health centres in Sauri, where between 60 and 70 per cent of people live on less than $1 per day. Health throughout the Sauri village cluster has improved greatly since MVP was set up in 2005 with a reduction in malaria cases, significant improvements in maternal and child health, and increased access to HIV testing and treatment.

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