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900 babies a day are born with AIDS virus in the developing world: report

A child takes part in a World AIDS Day ceremony in Cape Town.

Karin Colsen/Karin Colsen Associated Press

Eight years after the world pledged a dramatic reduction in the transfer of HIV from mother to baby, only 8 per cent of pregnant women in the developing world are getting full treatment, and 900 babies a day are being born with the AIDS virus.

The infected infants could easily be protected if their mothers were given a simple program of drug treatment, but a promise by world leaders in 2001 has never been kept, and global institutions are "cooking the books" to conceal the failure, according to a new report by a leading international coalition of HIV activists and experts.

The world's governments promised in 2001 that HIV infections among newborn babies would be reduced by 50 per cent by 2010. Since then, they have triumphantly claimed to be making progress, but this claim is a "conspiracy of misinformation," the report said.

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In reality, among the 1.5 million women with HIV who become pregnant every year in the developing world, only a third are receiving any drug treatment at all, and most of this treatment is so inadequate that it fails to prevent them from transmitting the virus to their babies, the report said.

Only about 8 per cent are getting the full triple-dose drug-combination treatment that is widely used in the West to virtually eliminate mother-to-child transmission.

"That makes the program something of a travesty," said Canadian AIDS activist Stephen Lewis, co-author of a preface to the report, in a conference call Thursday.

He criticized the United Nations health agencies for their claim that a growing number of pregnant women are getting "access" to treatment, when in fact the vast majority do not have any access to the triple-dose treatment that would effectively protect their babies. "It makes the access a simple mockery," he said.

The UN agencies have declared they are making "substantial progress" in giving medicine to pregnant women to prevent their babies from getting the AIDS virus. But in fact, only a third of pregnant women with HIV in the developing world are given any treatment, and most of those are given only a single drug, which is effective in less than half of cases.

"We reject the double talk that touts failure as success, and the double standard that values wealthy women over poor," wrote Mr. Lewis and Paula Donovan, co-directors of the AIDS-Free World advocacy group, in their preface to the report.

The report said the world is tolerating a "shameful example of double standards," since pregnant women in wealthier countries are given enough medicine to prevent their babies from getting the virus, allowing mother-to-child transmission to be virtually wiped out in the developed world, while it remains a massive problem in poorer countries.

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In 61 countries - including India, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Cameroon - at least three-quarters of pregnant women with HIV are not receiving any drug treatment to prevent the virus being transmitted to their babies, it said.

The report, released Thursday, was written by the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition. It was based on detailed research in six countries, including three African countries, along with global data.

In Uganda, it said, less than half of prenatal clinics are able to provide treatment to prevent HIV from being transmitted to the infant, largely due to severe shortages of health workers and drugs.

In Cambodia, almost 90 per cent of HIV-positive mothers and babies are given no drug treatment at all, while HIV testing is so minimal that 84 per cent of pregnant women do not even know whether they have the virus.

In Morocco, only 7.5 per cent of pregnant women with HIV have any access to treatment to prevent their babies getting the virus. And in Zimbabwe, the health system is in such disastrous shambles that the drug treatment program for HIV-infected patients was completed halted for several months over the past year.

The report also found a "shocking lack of consistency and co-ordination" among the governments and agencies that are supposed to be preventing HIV transmission from mothers to children. Only 18 per cent of the world's pregnant women were offered HIV tests in 2007, and there is a severe lack of prevention and counselling services for women, it said.

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One of the worst problems is the lack of counselling on infant feeding. Most women with HIV are not properly counselled on how to safely feed their babies, and sometimes the advice has a dangerous bias toward infant formula, instead of breast-feeding, the report said.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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