Wednesday, March 17, 2010

AIDS/HIV: Lesotho - campaign to help prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV

Source: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
By Shantha Bloemen

BEREA DISTRICT, Lesotho, 16 March 2010 – Malekena George is eight months pregnant, living with HIV, and exhausted from the five-hour trek she endured to get here, to the Pilot Health Clinic, for her first antenatal check-up. But because her journey to the clinic was so difficult, this visit may also be her last.

Ms. George's first child died at 13 months, likely due to HIV infection, and the Lesotho Ministry of Health is working to ensure that her second baby is not born with HIV as well.

In 2007, the Government, with help from UNICEF and other partners, initiated a massive effort to improve the country's Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) services. To succeed, they needed to ensure that every clinic in the country could provide HIV testing and treatment.

Lesotho leads the way

Lesotho became one of the first countries in the region to allow nurses to administer anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments, which greatly expanded access to these critical interventions in the remote areas of the country where fewer doctors are available.

But despite such efforts, major challenges remain, including the fact that many women, like Ms. George, are likely to make only one clinic visit.

This is a typical problem for many health systems in Africa. Though ARV drugs can increase the chances that a baby is born free of the virus, providing HIV-positive mothers with the treatment is not easy, especially in remote areas. The combination of distance, lack of transport and poverty prevents many women from making regular antenatal care visits. Such factors also lead many women to drop out of the PMTCT programmes, and to deliver their babies at home without the presence of trained medical professionals.

In a country such as Lesotho, where one in four people is living with HIV, that one antenatal visit has become all the more critical.

Keeping mother and child healthy

Innovative prevention methods are also making a huge difference. The Lesotho Government has designed a minimum package for expectant mothers like Ms. George that includes the most effective ARV drugs and antibiotics needed to keep them, and their children, healthy. When they leave the clinic, these women are also provided with clear instructions on what medicines they need to take – and when – and what medicines they need to give to their babies after their birth.

In an effort to expand this public health innovation ever further, UNICEF and WHO have created a colour-coded take-home box that will be rolled out to five countries in eastern and southern Africa, Lesotho included, by July. Instead of the nurses having to pack the medicines all in small pill bags, this new 'Mother to Baby Pack' clearly separates the ARV drugs and the antibiotics according to when they need to be taken.

"We had to take advantage of the first antenatal visit," said UNICEF HIV and Maternal Health Expert Blandinah Motaung. "In case a woman delivers at home, she will have that package with her."

A dramatic drop in infections

With the new regimen of ARV treatments, and the efforts to facilitate women in taking these medicines at home, health experts expect the number of babies born with HIV in Lesotho to drop dramatically.

"The expectation is that with better adherence to the treatment and more focus on helping mothers to exclusively breastfeed for six months, we can further reduce the transmission rate to less than five per cent," said Ms. Motaung.

Take home medicine

After her check-up, Ms. George listened carefully to Marethabile Lelia, the clinic nurse, give instructions on the medicines that she would be carrying home, and a mother-to-mother counsellor reiterated the importance of sticking to her treatment.

Although Ms. George has another appointment scheduled at the clinic, Ms. Lelia doesn't expect to see her until she returns with a six-week-old for the baby's first round of immunizations and first HIV test - children are again tested at 12, and then 18 months.

As she prepared for her five-hour walk home, Ms. George clung to her medicines, understanding clearly they represented her best hope of ensuring that her baby would escape infection and grow up healthy.

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