On World AIDS Day (Dec.1) paediatricians throughout the country launched a protest campaign against government’€™s failure to fast-track plans to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

An estimated 200 HIV positive babies are born every day in South Africa, but this figure could be halved if all HIV positive mothers were given anti-retroviral drugs during pregnancy and labour.

Over 200 paediatricians have signed a petition demanding that anti-retroviral drugs are made available immediately at health centres that “already have the capacity to implement mother-to-child preventative structures”.

In addition, they are demanding that the “infrastructure and facilities be rapidly developed” at hospitals and clinics that lacked this capacity so that implementation can occur as soon as possible.

The paediatricians plan to hand over their petition to the health minister or her representatives, and protest meetings have been planned at Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital and Stellenbosch University.

The protest has the backing of the SA Paediatric Association, the HIV Clinicians’€™ Society and the heads of paediatric departments at academic hospitals.

At present, government is piloting the implementation of the anti-retroviral drug nevirapine at two clinics per province, and only expects to resolve the issue of drugs to prevent MTCT of HIV in a year’€™s time.

“For too long now we have remained silent,” states the petition. “But it is us, not the politicians, who:

  • care for the ever-increasing numbers of sick children with HIV/AIDS every day;
  • deal with dying children succumbing to this terrible disease at hospitals and clinics around the country;
  • have to inform parents of their infants’€™ HIV status.”

Baragwanth paediatrician Dr Tammy Meyers says “morale is very low” amongst doctors working in the wards.

In one week, seven babies had died of AIDS-related illnesses in the 40-bed paediatric ward, while almost half of the small babies admitted each month are HIV infected.

“Things are different from when we did our training, before HIV was such a problem. We were trained as treaters, but aren’€™t really able to treat our patients anymore. So our role these days is more of a counselling one,” says Meyers.

“Often the children come in and that is the first time the family knows about their HIV status, so we end up having to counsel the parents. Because of the severe nature of the disease, the babies often come in with severe pneumonia, which is a terminal event for these children.

“So at the same time as we are counselling them about HIV we also have to counsel them about the fact that the children are probably going to die with this hospital admission.

“We are able to treat the acute infections as much as possible with antibiotics, but if the primary level HIV was prevented in these children we wouldn’€™t have to face the difficulties we are facing at the moment.”

Three-year-old Mahlatse (not her real name) sits on her grandmother’€™s lap, a beautiful child with huge eyes and heartbreakingly skinny legs.

Her parents have died and her own little life has been a constant battle against various illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia and she has been a frequent visitor in Meyers’€™s ward.

Her grandmother, who asks not to be named as she says people will “shun her”, says the doctors have been very helpful but she knows they cannot do much.

“I wish there could be a cure for AIDS. I want to educate Mahlatse and her sister, but how am I going to do this? We are a family of 10 and we depend on my pension. I need help.”

For Princess Simbata, finding out that her son, Johannes, was HIV positive was a double blow as that was when she found out she was infected too.

Unemployed, Simbata spends a lot of time caring for Johannes, now seven, who often vomits, gets diarrhoea and is generally sickly.

“I am very worried what ill happen to my children if I die. My family is no good because they all drink,” says Simbata.

Meyers says government needs to put in place a programme to “test and counsel pregnant women, and those who test HIV positive should be given the option of anti-retroviral treatment or an abortion”.

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