The United Nations health agency today said that while access to treatment for children with HIV has reached a new milestone, many more lives could be saved if more infants started receiving medication earlier.
“It is encouraging that more children are getting access to HIV treatment, but we have opportunities to do more to promote healthy lives for infants and children,” said Hiroki Nakatani, Assistant Director-General for HIV, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO).
At the end of 2009, some 355,000 children were receiving life-saving HIV treatment, compared to 276,000 at the end of 2008.
The agency is calling for early diagnosis and treatment, particularly for children under the age of one year, and recommending that infant diagnosis start at four to six weeks after birth.
Early diagnosis and prompt treatment is crucial, WHO said, noting that without it, an estimated one third of HIV-infected infants will die before their first birthday, and about half will die before reaching two years of age.
In addition, the agency has issued recommendations aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating new HIV infections in children.
To reduce the transmission of the infection from mothers to children – some 400,000 infants acquire HIV infection each year this way – WHO recommends that all women with HIV should receive antiretroviral drugs to protect against transmission during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding.
It adds that mothers living with HIV may now safely breastfeed provided that they or their infants receive antiretroviral drugs during the breastfeeding period.
“This has been shown to give infants the best chance to be protected from HIV transmission in settings where breastfeeding is the best option,” WHO stated.
“Virtual elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV by 2015 is possible,” said Paul De Lay, Deputy Executive Director at the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). “Relatively small investments can go a long way in saving mothers and babies.”