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US University Initiative Brings HIV Care to Women and Families in Africa, Asia - 2002-07-10

A leading U.S. university and a coalition of private foundations have begun a major program to deliver life-long AIDS therapies to women and their families in developing countries. As explained at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, the program expands on current global efforts to prevent mothers from transmitting the HIV virus to their newborns.

Columbia University's School of Public Health in New York has teamed with nine U.S. foundations to provide $50 million for HIV care in eight African and Asian countries.

The school's dean, Allan Rosenfield, says the program responds to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call last year for help in providing AIDS therapy to the world's poor. Dr. Rosenfield told the Barcelona meeting that the program will focus its first $9 million in grants on treating infected mothers. Later grants will go for treating infected children and women's infected partners.

"So it's a family approach to introducing treatment," he said. "We hope it will serve as a model for the larger treatment programs to follow from the Global Fund and other larger organizations."

Dr. Rosenfield says women and children bear the brunt of the AIDS pandemic. United Nations statistics show nearly three million women and children died last year from AIDS, 56 percent of the total. More than half a million babies are born to infected mothers each year, and an estimated 15.5 million children have been orphaned by the epidemic.

Global efforts to prevent mothers from transmitting the virus to their babies during pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding have expanded in recent years. Dr. Rosenfield says they have succeeded in reducing transmission rates by half.

The goal of the new program is to continue HIV therapy after a baby's delivery. For that reason, it is called Mother-to-Child Transmission Plus, or MTCT-Plus.

Three weeks ago, the Bush administration announced a $500 million U.S. plan to prevent one million mothers from transmitting HIV to their babies over the next five years. Dr. Rosenfield says his discussions with U.S. health and foreign aid officials lead him to believe some of that money may be redirected to support his program's longer-term family care goals. The president of the International AIDS Trust, Sandra Thurman, of the United States, says the U.S. Senate will soon consider legislation giving $75 million to MTCT-Plus.

She praised the program for moving the treatment agenda forward. She said, "MTCT-Plus moves us from saving babies to building families by providing treatment to HIV positive parents and enabling them to stay alive and healthy to care for and nurture their children."

The first 12 grants will go to 40 sites in Africa and Asia. The director of the MTCT-Plus program, Columbia University physician Wafaa El-Sadr, said the $50 million currently in hand will treat more than 10,000 HIV infected women, children, and other family members. "We're hoping this is the first step and with more resources we'll be able to reach more," she added.