A generation of babies could be born free of AIDS if the international community stepped up efforts to provide universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and social protection, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
A report by the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF found that millions of women and children, particularly in poor countries, fall through the cracks of HIV services either due to their gender, social or economic status, location or education.
While children have benefited from substantial progress made in the fight against AIDS, it said, more must be done to ensure all women and children get access to the medicines and health services designed to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.
According to latest United Nations data, 370,000 children were born with HIV in 2009, the vast majority of them in Africa - the region that bears by far the highest AIDS burden.
“Although it is very rare for a child to be born with HIV in the developed world, there are still a thousand newborns a day infected in Africa,” UNICEF’s head of HIV and AIDS Jimmy Kolker told reporters. “This is something we know how to prevent.”
AIDS is still one of the leading causes of death worldwide among women of reproductive age and a major cause of maternal death in countries with AIDS epidemics. In sub-Saharan Africa, nine percent of maternal deaths are attributable to HIV and AIDS, UNICEF said.
Just over half of all pregnant women infected HIV got the drugs they needed to prevent mother-to-child transmission in 2009, compared with 45 percent in 2008.
In 2009, some 33.3 million people around the world had the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, and 22.5 million of them were living in sub-Saharan Africa.
UNICEF said one of the most significant increases in access to prevention drugs was in eastern and southern Africa, where the proportion jumped 10 percentage points, from 58 percent in 2008 to 68 percent in 2009.
Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said there was now “strong evidence that elimination of mother-to-child transmission is achievable.”
“Achieving the goal will require much better prevention among women and mothers in the first place,” she said.
Babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of HIV and without treatment about half of infants infected with HIV die before their second birthday.
UNICEF said that while the availability of early infant diagnosis services has increased dramatically in many countries, global coverage still remains low, at only six percent in 2009.
In a separate statement before world AIDS day on December 1, the UNAIDS director Michel Sidibe said: “Nothing gives me more hope than knowing that an AIDS-free generation is possible in our lifetime.”
By Kate Kelland