An Italian humanitarian organization says much more can be done in Africa to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the AIDS virus. It says relying solely on the drug Nevirapine is costing lives and threatening Africa’s future.
The Community of Sant’Egidio (sant-eh-JIH-dee-oh) is perhaps best known for its mediation work in Mozambique, Ivory Coast and Liberia. Now, it’s launching a new campaign in six African countries to help stop the spread of HIV.
It says treating HIV-positive pregnant women only with Nevirapine does not go far enough to protect newborns - and does little to protect the mothers.
Use of the inexpensive drug has grown on the continent and researchers say it has saved the lives of many thousands of babies. But recent research has raised concerns that HIV could build up resistance to it and that use of Nevirapine should be closely monitored.
Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Rome-based group, says African women deserve the same three-drug therapy available to women in rich nations.
"Well, Nevirapine is better than nothing. If we believe that Africa will never have the treatment, we must continue to give Nevirapine because it is better than nothing. But if we believe that Africa must not disappear and has the human right to the full treatment, then we must invest the resources that are going to become available to start the therapy on the right foot, which is the full three (drug) therapy, free of charge for those that we can reach."
Sant’Egidio says its treatment program is much more comprehensive. Nevirapine would be given along with two other antiretroviral drugs to not only protect the infant, but to prolong the life of the mother. Treatment would also be provided for opportunistic infections that often strike people with weak immune systems.
"You would have adult people, who would recover, live, and not only survive – and so the whole family, the mother, the women – it is focused on women – and so the whole family would have real support. And you would not create the destruction of civil society as it is now because of AIDS and the children of AIDS and the dying of all the mothers and the women and so on."
Mr. Marazziti says it’s true such a program would cost more than Nevirapine-only treatment. Nevertheless, he says it’s more cost-effective.
"We must think of the relationship between cost and income and outcome. So, which is the result? I think we have the duty to guarantee the therapy to the adult people and to the children that are already infected by HIV."
Sant’Egidio is receiving financial support for its AIDS treatment program from private Italian institutions. It’s also negotiating with the World Bank. It plans to begin its treatment program this year in South Africa, Malawi, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau and Swaziland.