First lady Penehupifo Pohamba says male involvement in antenatal care and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission programmes is undesirably low.
She believes concerted efforts are needed if the target of reaching zero HIV infections is to be realised nationwide.
The first lady spoke at the launch of the second phase of the campaign on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) in Katima Mulilo last Wednesday.
"Male involvement has been very inadequate in PMTCT programmes. Communication initiatives have largely focused on encouraging women to come for PMTCT services, but men are often left out. They are left out without a clear understanding of the risks to their partners, their children and even to themselves," Madam Pohamba said.
"Often men are misled by some aspects of our cultures that pregnancy and taking care of babies and children is a woman's business. Therefore, a pregnant woman going to ante-natal clinic, attending PMTCT services, delivering or breastfeeding a baby has nothing to do with her male partner. I respect the diverse cultures and traditions, however at times we need to abandon some aspects which pose threats or are harmful to our health and our survival."
According to the first lady the PMTCT campaign is necessary to reduce AIDS-related mortalities and with the Caprivi Region being one the most affected regions, it was only logical to launch the second phase of the campaign in the region.
"Despite all the efforts made by the government and stakeholders, the HIV prevalence among pregnant women attending antenatal care remains high at 18.8 percent," according to the sentinel survey.
"Caprivi is one of the top five regions badly affected, with the highest prevalence rate of 35.6 percent followed by the Oshana Region with 25.1 percent, the Oshikoto Region with 24.2 percent, the Omusati Region with 21.2 percent and the Ohangwena with 19.5 percent, hence the launch in the Caprivi Region," Madam Pohamba said.
She further said that cultural norms, stigma and discrimination associated with HIV-positive mothers often lead them to put their babies at risk of contracting the HIV virus.
"Cultural norms and practices around breastfeeding make it difficult for many mothers in PMTCT programmes to make the right decisions. They are given information on breastfeeding and other feeding options which are safe for their babies even if they are HIV-positive. However, because of the fear attributed to cultural norms and practices as well as stigma and discrimination, many mothers end up failing to adhere to infant feeding practices that can protect their babies from HIV infection," the first lady said.
"Evidence has shown that children who are breastfed are less likely to get sick. The majority are found to be intelligent. The government recommends that all mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies from birth to age six months. For HIV-positive mothers, yes, HIV can be transmitted through breast milk, that is why all babies of HIV-positive mothers receive ARV prophylaxis during the time they are breastfeeding," she said.
She urged partners to visit HIV testing and counselling centres as couple as such bold decisions are likely to benefit them. "Many people are afraid of utilising PMTCT services because of the fear of the unknown. Fear will not disappear by itself. I urge you to go for counselling and HIV testing and receive support together as a couple. Seek advice from health workers. That will allow couples to learn the appropriate measures to ensure a healthy pregnancy and increase the potential for an HIV-free baby."
Speaking at the same occasion, UNFPA country representative, Fabian Byomuhangi, said global targets set for PMTCT have seen a shift that intends to completely eradicate mother-to-child transmission.
"The global targets for the elimination plan of mother-to-child transmission are twofold. First, to reduce the number of new HIV infections among children by 90 percent in 2015, and second to reduce the number of AIDS-related maternal deaths by 50 percent in 2015. The targets are therefore focusing both on children and their mothers. In this connection, there has been a shift from preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV to eliminating mother-to-child transmission (E-MTCT)," said Byomuhangi.
Regional health director, Albius Maswahu, revealed that in the Caprivi Region only a mere 2.5 percent of males sought PMTCT services together with their partners.
The first phase of the first lady's campaign on prevention of mother-to- child transmission of HIV, with the theme, "An HIV free generation tomorrow needs caring fathers today", was launched by President Hifikepunye Pohamba on March 10, 2011.
Its central focus area is exclusive breastfeeding and greater involvement of fathers in PMTCT and maternal and child care. Partners in the campaign include the Ministry of Health and Social Services, Nawa Life Trust, CDC, UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO and many others.
The event was attended by Caprivi Governor Lawrence Sampofu, Chairperson of the Caprivi Regional Council Raphael Mbala, High Commissioner of Zambia to Namibia Wendy Sinkala, Governor of the Kavango Region, Maurus Nekaro, Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, Doreen Sioka, Deputy Minister of Health and Social Services, Petrina Haingura, Mayor of Katima Mulilo, John Likando, and representatives of various traditional authorities.