The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has applauded the big leap taken by the South African Government towards achieving universal access to treatment for HIV for the country’s women and children living with the virus.
Among the momentous and historic decisions announced by President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday, which was World AIDS Day, were the expansion of access to antiretroviral treatments and preventing new infections among children.
“The Government of South Africa has demonstrated an unprecedented leadership, vision and compassion for its children and their future welfare,” said Aida Girma, UNICEF’s South Africa Representative.
“By tackling the HIV pandemic head on, the country will prevent new HIV infections, contribute to the reduction of under-five mortality and also prevent more children from being orphaned.”
UNICEF said in a press release that South Africa’s adoption of new HIV treatment guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and making such services available at all health facilities demonstrates the country’s commitment to normalizing the virus as an integral part of primary health care services to save lives and avert new infections.
The new measures build on efforts already under way in South Africa to expand access to prevention of mother-to-child transmissions (PMTCT) to all women living with HIV and AIDS, increase the availability of early infant diagnosis and provide treatment to HIV positive children.
Coverage of PMTCT has already soared from 15 per cent in 2004 to 73 per cent last year, while pediatric treatment has increased to reach nearly two-thirds of the some 94,000 children in need at the end of 2008.
However, most infants are not tested for the virus before six weeks and many lose their lives undiagnosed and untreated.
Infants’ chances of survival will rise dramatically thanks to South Africa’s announcement to start treatment for all babies living with HIV/AIDS, regardless of their CD count, provided that access to early infant diagnosis is improved, UNICEF said.
Without appropriate treatment, half of children living with HIV will die from an HIV-related cause before they turn two years old, the agency noted. Survival rates can be up to 75 per cent higher for HIV-positive newborns who are diagnosed and start treatment within their first 12 weeks.
“We are eager to support the Government in this ambitious plan and ready to contribute to make sure all health facilities are equipped to deliver these critical services,” Ms. Girma said.
Many women and children, especially the most poor and marginalized, drop out of treatment programmes due to the long distances they must travel to receive antiretroviral drugs. UNICEF expressed hope that expanding such services to all health clinics will allow such barriers to be overcome.
The agency also said that boosting access to treatment coupled with a nationwide voluntary testing campaign will contribute to ensuring that no South African will be afraid to know his or her status and create an HIV-free generation.
“In order to achieve this, however, prevention among young people is equally important,” Ms. Girma stressed. “We thus encourage the Government to also increase its efforts to scale up primary prevention,” which she said is still the best way to protect mothers and children from HIV in the first place.