June 1, 2012
A South African health program providing free antiretrovirals (ARVs) to expectant mothers to prevent perinatal HIV transmission has saved upwards of 70,000 children annually, officials report.
Avi Violari, a pediatrician at Soweto's Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, said pregnant women are tested at antenatal clinics, and if they are HIV-positive, "We do a lot of intensive counseling ... and we offer to give treatment during pregnancy."
Through the "Prevention of Mother-to-Child-Transmission" (PMTCT) program, HIV-positive mothers receive free ARVs during pregnancy, after birth, and sometimes during labor. Newborns also receive a small ARV dose to help stave off infection.
The national government for years resisted giving ARVs to HIV-positive expectant women, but in 2002 the Constitutional Court ordered their free distribution to mothers-to-be with the virus. The program has since expanded beyond pregnant women to serve 1.3 million people, becoming the largest effort of its kind in the world. It has greatly benefitted this developing nation, where half of the 50 million residents live on less than US $2 per day, and nearly 6 million people have HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, children sometimes develop resistance to ARVs their mothers received while pregnant, and they risk HIV exposure via breastfeeding. Since 2010, the country has advocated that mothers exclusively breastfeed initially, as mother's milk is thought to better protect against diseases, said Theresa Rossouw, South Africa's chief HIV doctor.
PMTCT's success has been lauded internationally. "PMTCT program is a flagship of the South African government," said Dr. Thapelo Maotoe of USAID, which has donated upwards of $3.3 billion to South African HIV/AIDS treatment since 2004.