Children benefit from ‘power of prevention’ – but not adults

Children benefit from ‘power of prevention’ – but not adultsMadabukela lies in the province’s Gert Sibande District, in which about 40 percent of pregnant women are living with HIV.

HIV infection rates amongst children in eastern and southern Africa are steadily declining.

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Mother and child
Maamohelang visited the Molikaliko clinic and received medication to prevent passing HIV on to her child. Credit: Reverie Zurba/USAID.

More moms in the region are receiving essential HIV medication to stop the virus infecting their babies, according to a new report published on Tuesday (12 July) by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Since 2010 there has been a massive 66% drop in new HIV infections among children in eastern and southern Africa with an estimated 56 000 occurring in 2015. This “impressive decline” is largely thanks to “the rapid increase in coverage of services for prevention of mother-to child transmission [PMTCT] from 61% in 2010 to 90% in 2015”.

The “Prevention gap report” identifies trends in new HIV infections around the globe and shows that while new infections amongst adults have stopped declining, infections among children have dropped by over 70% since 2001.

Preventing HIV in children: South Africa’s success

PMTCT includes a range of services to reduce the risk of transmission from a mother to her baby – primarily providing her with effective antiretroviral therapy.

According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the country has made dramatic progress with its PMTCT programme which started in 2004. At that time over 20 percent of babies born to HIV positive mothers became infected. But, by 2014 this figure had plummeted to 1.8 percent.

Although the region (eastern and southern Africa) is home to 6.2% of the world’s population, it contains half the planet’s people living with HIV. According to the report, 46% of new HIV infections in 2015 occurred in the region – with South Africa alone responsible for almost half of these.

Girls and young women most at risk

“We are sounding the alarm. If there is a resurgence in new HIV infections now, the epidemic will become impossible to control.”

Young woman in particular are at a high risk of HIV-infection due to a combination of gender-inequality, stigma and high rates of transactional sex.

The report noted that “with committed efforts” the region stands a chance of reaching the UNAIDS targets for 2020 amongst children, with 90 percent tested, 90 percent on treatment and 90 percent achieving virological suppression (when the amount of virus in the blood declines to undetectable levels). But, “adult infections are not declining fast enough” to reach these goals in time.

“We are sounding the alarm,” said UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé in a press release. “If there is a resurgence in new HIV infections now, the epidemic will become impossible to control.”

The organisation also noted that reaching adolescent girls and young women, “especially in sub-Saharan Africa, will be a key factor in ending the AIDS epidemic”.

An edited version of this story was also published on Health24.com.