U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Monday that the U.S. will donate another US$80 million in new funding to help poor countries reach the goal of eliminating all HIV mother-to-baby infections.
Clinton told the International AIDS Conference Monday that the new money will help get life-saving drugs to women who now slip through the cracks.
UNICEF’s Chief of HIV/AIDS Craig McClure, the Canadian who is leading UNICEF’s delegation to the IAS conference, says those funds come in addition to money the U.S. has already promised to the critical goal of ensuring that babies are born HIV-free.
“That’s on top of the $1 billion the U.S. government alone has spent on preventing mother-to-child transmission. So it’s a significant top-up that will certainly help,” McClure told CTVNews.ca from Washington, where the conference is being held.
McClure says never before has the world been so close to the dream of eliminating almost all mother-to-child HIV transmissions. In fact, the hope is that can be achieved by 2015.
“There’s been huge progress made in the last 10 years,” he says. “We’ve seen a 40 per cent reduction in babies born with HIV in the last 10 years, from close to 600,000 babies born infected, to just over 300,000. But that’s still 300,000 too many.” What has helped turn the tide is a new “test and treat” approach, whereby every pregnant mother is tested for HIV. Those who test positive are given a daily, single pill that combines three drugs into one, which can almost completely reduce the chance that an HIV-positive mother will pass the infection onto her baby.
He says until recently, most pregnant women were offered a complicated drug regimen in which they had to take one drug during pregnancy, then another drug during delivery, and then another given to the baby during breastfeeding.
“That approach was too complicated, both for the mother herself, and her health providers, and it didn’t offer the optimal impact for her, her baby and her sexual partners,” says McClure.
“So the shift now is to move to treating all pregnant women with HIV, to treat them immediately after their diagnosis,” he says, adding that the goal is to keep the mothers on the medications for the rest of their lives.
Not only is this approach simpler and more effective, it ends up being more cost effective in the long run, says McClure.
“After five years, we will see the benefit of the approach in terms of cost savings, because of the reduced infections, reduced need for hospitalization and other health services to the infected babies, mothers and the infected partners,” McClure says.
He notes that one-third of babies born with HIV to untreated mothers will die within their first year of life; half will die by age two. Preventing transmission from mothers gives those children the chance to live healthy lives, says McClure.
“So all in all, the arguments for moving to treating all pregnant women makes sense financially, it makes sense from a moral perspective, and it makes sense for ending the epidemic,” he says.
While there is still no cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS yet, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. AIDS researcher, told the conference earlier Monday that the global community has the tools to finally stem the spread of this virus -- largely by using the same medicines that have been used for years as treatment and offering them as tools to make patients less infectious.
He added though while the world wants to get “to the end of AIDS," there is still a lot of work to do. He and other researchers are urging the world's governments not to cut back on the HIV fight at this critical turning point.
McClure says that’s an important message to stress.
“After two decades of watching the epidemic out of control, for the last 10 years, serious resources and serious attention have been put forward to the effort to combat HIV. And the results are paying off,” says McClure.
“But we need to stay focused, we need the resources, we need to be efficient and effective. It’s not the time to lose interest just because we’re at the moment of success.”