Johannesburg — A slightly higher proportion of babies was saved from HIV infection in 2011 than in the previous year, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said on Thursday.
"It has proven that putting mothers and infants on treatment early on really works," Motsoaledi told reporters in Johannesburg.
An estimated 104,000 babies out of 117,000 (89 percent) were saved from HIV infection in 2010.
In 2011, another 3000 babies were saved to increase the proportion to 91 percent of 117,000 babies.
This was established by research done by the Medical Research Council and Centres for Disease Control and Infection on the effectiveness of mother-to-child transmission programmes on babies aged four to six weeks.
The figures were based on the assumption that 32.2 percent of live births were HIV-exposed and that 30 percent of HIV-exposed babies would be HIV-infected by eight weeks if there was no intervention.
Motsoaledi attributed some of the improvement to the national HIV Counselling and Testing campaign which had seen 20 million South Africans tested for HIV since it began in April 2010.
Before that, only around two million South Africans were tested.
Another contributing factor was a policy change in 2010, which saw mothers receive treatment if their CD4 count was less than 350 cells per millimetre.
The CD4 count is used to determine how well the immune system works in a person diagnosed with HIV. Previously, antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) were only provided if the count was less than 250.
Motsoaledi said it was particularly pleasing that the biggest drop in HIV transmissions was in KwaZulu-Natal, which had the highest prevalence of HIV/Aids.
Mpumalanga, the Free State and North West had also shown significant declines.
Dr Ameena Goga, specialist scientist at the Medical Research Council, said the study was conducted in 580 public health facilities across the country on infants aged four to eight weeks who were being immunised.
She said the main finding was that although the HIV exposure rate of infants was similar in 2010 and 2011, the HIV transmission rate had dropped from 3.5 percent in 2010 to 2.7 percent in 2011.
In 2008, the transmission rate was eight percent.
At this rate, South Africa should be on course to achieve the United Nations target of eliminating new HIV infections among children by 2015.
Infants could still become infected through breastfeeding, so it would be important to study babies at 18 months to determine whether the transmission rate and infant mortality rate were still improving.
Motsoaledi called on HIV-positive mothers on ARVs to continue breastfeeding, as long as they took the drugs.
By 2015, South Africa was expected to increase the current 1.7 million people on treatment to two million people.
"This is a huge challenge... no country on earth has the numbers we do," the minister said.
China, with a population 30 times that of South Africa, only has 160,000 people on ARV treatment.
According to a UNAids global report released on Wednesday, there were an estimated 23.5 million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa in 2011, of which around 3.1 million were children.
Motsoaledi said there was a lot of good news in the report including that 20 percent more people living with HIV/Aids in sub-Saharan Africa were on treatment in 2011 compared to 2010.
More than 6.2 million people in the region were on treatment in 2011.
However, much still needed to be done considering 1.7 million people in the region were newly infected, including 300,000 children, in 2011.
The minister was particularly concerned that women and girls made up 60 percent of the people living with HIV/Aids in sub-Saharan Africa.
"This means that we need to deal more decisively with the structural issues that affect the lives of women and girls," he said.
This included increasing their access to education, ensuring girls stayed in school for longer, and empowering women in general.
To achieve the UN's goals of zero infections, zero discrimination and zero Aids-related deaths, Motsoaledi said the fight against HIV/Aids and tuberculosis must be integrated with family planning and reproductive health rights.