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AIDS treatment in S. Africa saves infants' lives

SOWETO, South Africa--One-year-old Katakane laughs and coos in the arms of her HIV-positive mother as a doctor tries to examine her at South Africa's largest public hospital, in Soweto township.

But it is only a routine check-up. The little girl is healthy thanks to a treatment that has saved thousands of babies born to mothers with the virus that causes AIDS.

“My baby, she's fine! She's playing, and she's saying 'mummy, papa' ... Yes, she's good, she's fine,” said the beaming 32-year-old Nandi (not her real name), recalling her relief when she learned her daughter was HIV-negative.

Two years ago while she was expecting, Nandi took part in a state health program designed to prevent HIV-positive mothers from infecting their babies with the virus.

The treatment has saved up to 70,000 children every year, according to officials — a massive success story in a country with almost six million people living with HIV and AIDS and a notorious treatment history.

Pregnant women get tested at antenatal clinics, said pediatrician Avi Violari at Soweto's Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital.

“If she is HIV-infected, then we do a lot of intensive counseling ... and we offer to give treatment during pregnancy,” she said, as children dangled from blue chairs in the research unit, waiting with parents for testing or treatment.

The HIV mothers are given antiretroviral (ARV) drugs during pregnancy and after birth, and possibly an extra dose during labor depending on the virus' progression — all free of charge.

'It's unbelievable'

The medicines reduce the viral load in her body, which in turn reduces the infant's risk of contracting HIV through the umbilical chord or by exposure to the mother's bodily fluids during childbirth or breast feeding.

The newborn also gets a few drops of ARV syrup as an extra boost to fight infection.

The treatment's success has been a boon in a country where half the 50 million residents live on less than US$2 a day.

While ARV drugs have downgraded AIDS from a deadly to a chronic condition in richer countries, allowing sufferers to carry on a decent lifestyle, the same is not true in poorer countries where survival can be a cruel, daily struggle for proper food and medicine.

Until a decade ago, South Africa had also notoriously resisted giving anti-AIDS drugs to pregnant women. Former President Thabo Mbeki, in power at the time, drew worldwide criticism for his stance challenging whether HIV causes AIDS and questioning Western diagnoses and medicines on how to treat the virus.

In 2002, however, the Constitutional Court ordered that antiretroviral be made available, at no cost, to HIV mothers-to-be.

Today, South Africa's ARV program has moved beyond pregnant women and now serves 1.3 million people, the largest program of its kind in the world.

Before the “Prevention of Mother-to-Child-Transmission (PMTCT)” program was launched, almost a third of the country's babies were born with HIV, contracted from their mothers. Infection rates have now dropped to under 4 percent, according to official figures released last year.

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One-year-old Katakane is held on May 16 by her HIV-positive mother, Nandi, 32, at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, South Africa's largest public hospital, in Soweto. The little girl was born healthy thanks to treatment that has saved thousands of babies and her visit is only a routine check-up.

(AFP)

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