World leaders and activists gathered at the United Nations this week for a high-level meeting on the international response to HIV and AIDS launched a global plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2015.
Around the world, AIDS is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. Many do not even know they are infected until they are pregnant. Treatment is crucial then, because when a pregnant woman receives antiretroviral drugs the risk of her child being born infected is reduced to less than five percent. It also means the mother will stay healthy longer to care for her child.
South African Babalwa Mbono is one of these women. She said her joy at learning she was pregnant was overshadowed by her fear when she found out she was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“Despair not knowing how you are going to live, how are you going to live enough to raise the child," said Mbono. "And despaired thinking that you are going to infect your innocent child.”
But she was among the lucky because she was assisted by an organization called Mothers2Mothers, which provides care, support and education for HIV-positive mothers.
“I was able to know how to take care of myself and my baby, and I was able to learn how to take my treatment and how to do the tests that are needed, and also I learned how to feed my baby," she said. "And I also learned how to fight stigma associated with HIV.”
With these tools and knowledge, Babalwa’s baby was born HIV-free, and she now mentors other HIV-positive mothers.
But despite such success stories, there are still many pregnant women in need of these and other services. In 2009, some 370,000 babies were born with HIV - almost all of them in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Under the new initiative launched Thursday, the goal would be to reduce this number by 90 percent within four years.
The plan aims to do it through expanding access to life-saving HIV prevention and treatment services for mothers and their children; integrating health care services for women; and empowering them to ensure their own health and that of their children.
The United States has been very active on this front and pledged an additional $75 million to the global plan. Speaking at the launch, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby noted the disparity between pediatric AIDS rates in developed versus developing countries.
“In the United States and Europe, pediatric AIDS is now an artifact of history, yet in many countries nearly one baby is born with HIV every minute, despite us having the know-how to prevent it," said Goosby. "Ensuring that all babies are born HIV-free must be a global priority and not left to a lottery of geography.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed this concern, saying mothers everywhere feel the same love for their children and deserve the same options for treatment. He noted that the success in eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the developed world proves it can be done globally.