The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Exposed Babies At Risk

The Millennium Development Goals deadline of 2015 is just around the corner and Zimbabwe has pledged to reduce child mortality by that time.

According to a joint United Nations programme on HIV and Aids 2009, 260 000 children under the age of 15 died from AIDS-related causes.

The country also aims to improve maternal health which is goal number five under the MDGs.

AIDS-related illness remain a leading cause of death among women aged 15 to 44. MDG Goal number 6 seeks to combat HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

For every individual that was started on antiretroviral treatment in 2009, UNAIDS reported in 2010 that two new people were infected with HIV.

Goal number 6 therefore is a mammoth task if new infections keep surpassing treatment levels. Zimbabwe has taken the theme "3 Zeros" which runs from 2011 to 2015.

Under this theme the country aims to have zero AIDS-related deaths, zero new infections and zero discrimination of people living with HIV and AIDS.

The three goals listed above remain elusive as work on the ground in Zimbabwe shows otherwise.

Babies born to HIV-positive mothers are at higher risk of being exposed to HIV and therefore need to be monitored and screened for the virus.

Pregnant mothers who register for antenatal clinic receive the life-saving service of the prevention from mother to child transmission if found to have the HIV virus.

Mothers are counselled and encouraged to get tested. They are however not forced to get tested and some mothers therefore opt out and this is rather unfortunate.

This could be due to stigma and fear of how one will break the news to the spouse. Some women have been tested and kept it secret due to fear of rejection by their spouses.

This barrier could only be overcome if husbands accompanied their wives to ante natal clinic and get tested together. Country director of the Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric Foundation (EGPAF) Dr Agnes Mahomva also highlighted this while speaking to journalists last year.

Mother to child transmission proved to be the second most common cause of HIV infection.

"It is imperative that husbands accompany their wives to ante natal clinic. Pregnancy needs spousal support and we find that couples who call together have less difficulty in accepting any diagnosis that would result in blood tests. We therefore urge husbands to be part of the prevention of HIV from mother to child programme.

"No baby should be born with the HIV virus today. Stopping vertical transmission is therefore possible," said Dr Mahomva.

EGPAF works in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and Child Care nationwide offering PMTCT services.

A sticky issue that still remains is the turnaround time when a blood sample from an exposed child is sent for testing at the national laboratory.

Dry blood samples are taken because they do not easily get contaminated like fresh one if the lengthy time that is involved is anything to go by.

The country's dry blood samples are all sent to Harare Central Hospital where a special test, the DNA, CPR test is done.

"For samples sent from hospitals and clinics outside Harare, the results take a month or more to return.

Sadly, the long time taken to test the blood samples has resulted in most children dying before results return.

A nursing sister from Chitsungo Mission Hospital in Mashonaland Central Province decried the delays in receiving results.

The community monitoring team which visited eight provinces in the country has reported the same challenge across the nation.

Community monitoring team spokesperson, Mr Stanley Takaona, said delays in the dry blood samples being received at the respective centres is a cause of concern.

He added that some of the results get lost as they are sent to addresses with similar names.

Mrs Carly Chifambu of Mushumbi Pools said she had no choice but come to Harare after waiting for a month for her baby's results.

"Being HIV positive is hard on its own and to think that one could have passed on the virus to the baby is a nightmare.

"My baby had a blood sample taken at six months but after a month the results were not back at the local clinic. My sister who lives in Harare said I should come to Harare and accompanied me to Harare Hospital where baby's blood samples were done.

"We were told to check after a week. I am glad I did that because had I decided to wait in Mushumbi stress would have killed me literally.

"My baby was found to be HIV negative and I am so pleased.

"My worry is for those mothers waiting for months back home and maybe the baby needs to be put on treatment. I wish there was a faster method to have results dispatched back to the clients," said Mrs Chifambu.

Not many mothers are lucky.

Mrs Chifambu, says it is difficult to get a dollar since she has no means to raise cash.

Zimbabwe envisions total elimination of new HIV infections in children by 2015 and to keep the mothers alive.

Dr Angela Mushavi, the national PMTCT and Paediatric HIV, Care and Treatment co-ordinator in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, said the country has embarked on a four-pronged approach to HIV. The first being primary prevention of new HIV infections.

Mothers are encouraged to register for ANC at 14 weeks or earlier. With the use of highly effective anti-retroviral therapy, HIV pregnant mothers are in a position to give birth to HIV negative babies.

Pregnant mothers should therefore register for ANC as this is the entry point to vertical transmission prevention.

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