- Efforts to curb HIV transmission from mothers to their children in Africa have received a boost, from a new partnership between the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and a UN-backed initiative seeking to help lift villages on the continent lift themselves out of poverty.
Under an agreement signed yesterday, UNAIDS and the Millennium Villages Project will jointly help local governments in nine African nations set up “mother to child transmission-free zones.”
The Millennium Villages Project aims to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - eight anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline - in 10 African countries within five years through community-led development.
Every year, the great majority of children born with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa, where fewer than half of pregnant women living with the virus receive antiretroviral prophylaxis, which is crucial in preventing newborns from contracting HIV.
With the support from African and global business leaders, the new scheme will draw on existing infrastructure and human resources in villages to rapidly expand health services.
“In the whole of Western Europe, there were fewer than 100 mother-to-child transmissions in 2007, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, there were some 370,000,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé. “We have a major opportunity now to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Africa and save thousands of lives every year.”
In high-income countries, transmission of HIV to children has plummeted from 25 percent to between 1 and 5 percent in recent years as HIV testing and counseling of pregnant women, the use of antiretroviral drugs during and after delivery, and safe infant feeding have become common practice.
Evidence from Africa points to locally-appropriate and cost-effective clinical measures could slash transmissions from current rates, hovering around 45 percent, to as low as 1 or 2 percent.
The Millennium Villages Project, a partnership between The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Millennium Promise, and UNDP, seeks to end poverty by working in rural areas throughout Africa. The new initiative will use the existing infrastructure, human capacity and technical resources in the villages, to help rapidly expand family- and community-centered heath services with focus on stopping new HIV infections among children.
The UNAIDS Executive Director and Prof Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, signed the agreement in the presence of business and African leaders. The ceremony was held under the auspices of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal.
“I salute this partnership to help protect mothers and their children from HIV. This initiative will mobilize resources and generate political will to save young lives, leading to a generation of African children born free of HIV,” said President Wade.
Also supporting the initiative and participating in the signing event were Dr Lydia Mungherera, a Ugandan HIV prevention activist representing the organizations HIV+ and TASO; the Executive Director of UNICEF, Anne M. Veneman; the First Lady of Ethiopia, Azeb Mesfin; the Nigerian Minister of Health, Prof Babatunde Osotimehin; and the South African Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.
The top priorities outlined in the memorandum include measures to ensure that women of child bearing age avoid getting infected, those that are infected avoid unwanted pregnancy; increase access to antenatal care services; HIV testing and counselling to expectant mothers; and expanded access to HIV prevention and treatment services for children.
The agreement will bring together the Millennium Village Project’s multi-sectoral and science-based development and primary healthcare strategy with UNAIDS’ expertise in community and family-centred prevention strategies in order to create ‘MTCT-free zones’, whose progress will be monitored by both entities.
In 2007, there were 2 million children under 15 years living with HIV, up from 1.6 million in 2001 and less than 15% in need of treatment were getting it. In sub-Saharan Africa, only a third of pregnant HIV-positive women received the antiretroviral treatment (ART) to prevent transmitting the infection to their infants, compared with nearly 100% in Western Europe.
Operating in 14 sites in 10 sub-Saharan African countries, the Millennium Villages project has been working with local governments to introduce a model primary health system which will cover approximately 500,000 people.
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