Public Health

Better Prevention Is Next Frontier For Curbing HIV/AIDS In Newborns

The biggest buzz at an HIV/AIDS meeting in Vienna this week may have been about using an antiviral gel to prevent infection women.

But public health officials are also thinking a lot about how to keep babies healthy and free of HIV.

In a first, the World Health Organization says its OK for HIV-infected mothers to breastfeed their babies as long as one of them is taking antiretroviral drugs.

The recommendation is part of new WHO guidelines for earlier HIV testing and treatment for pregnant women and their newborns. "We're really entering a new era" of thinking about prevention, said Ying-Ru Lo, a WHO spokesperson currently at the International AIDS conference in Vienna.

Lo told Shots over the phone that with earlier treatment, we can prevent more than 75 percent of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Forty-nine countries, including Thailand, Botswana and Malawi, have already adopted the 2010 guidelines.

But, despite global efforts to fight HIV, we still face a huge challenge. How huge? Here are the stats:

  • One-third of infected babies die before their first birthday. About half die before age 2.
  • Only about half of pregnant women living with HIV got antiretroviral drugs to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies in 2008.
  • About 90 percent of roughly 400,000 new HIV infections per year in children still occur through mother-to-child transmission.

WHO's Lo said that to make good on the new recommendations, health systems around the world will have to better link medical treatment for mother and child.

Places like Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia have already been successful in eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission.  But Dr Paul De Lay, a UNAIDS director, told the media in Vienna that it's possible to eliminate mother-to-child transmission altogether by 2015.

The new guidelines would about double the cost of providing drugs and services to women.  De Lay estimated that costs would go up to $1.5 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.  But the benefit, he told the WSJ, is saving hundreds of thousands of babies a year.

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