Ethiopia: Preventing Mother-To-Child HIV Transmission

In Ethiopia, young mothers undergo regular antiretroviral therapy (ART) in order to increase the chances of delivering HIV-free babies. Antiretroviral therapy is nothing new; however, the increased provision of ART is strengthening Ethiopia’s maternal healthcare services and enabling more mothers to live healthier lives with their babies.

In Ethiopia, 90,000 pregnant women live with HIV and 14,000 HIV-positive births occur annually (World Health Organization). Despite these numbers, only 24% of eligible pregnant women receive ART and other medical services. Without medical intervention, the mother is not the only one at risk – a baby being born in a developing nation is at a 25% to 35% risk of getting HIV from an infected mother (PubMed). HIV is a public health issue that endangers countless lives, including those who haven’t been born yet.

Ethiopian mothers are being given the chance to break the cycle. According to 33-year-old Sisay Dinku, who offers counseling to HIV-positive women, “There have been a lot of improvements. When I first knew I was HIV positive, we used to go to the hospitals far away because the services weren’t given at the community centers like they are now.”

For instance, people no longer have to wait as long to receive their CD4 count results. The results gauge how well one’s immune system can fight infections such as HIV, and also determine when a person should begin treatment. Previously, women would have to wait up to two weeks to receive their results, if at all – more often than not, the results would become mixed up, rendering them useless.

The Pima machine was a revolutionary change. Now, patients can have their blood samples analyzed in twenty minutes, allowing all eligible patients to begin treatment right away, rather than having to wait weeks. When it comes to pregnant women, a difference of mere days can make all the difference in life and death. Sisay was one of nine other women who discovered they were HIV-positive on the same day, but she is the only survivor. The rest, unfortunately, were not able to begin treatment or sustain treatments once they begin due to causes such as lack of transportation to the health center.

The Pima machines were initially funded and provided by UNITAID, a global health organization, but the Ethiopian government has since chosen to expand and extend the program, due to its success and efficiency. USAID also ran a three-year HIV prevention program for pregnant, HIV-positive mothers. It collaborated with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health to strengthen existing maternal and newborn health services. Community-based measures were also taken. Pathfinder International, another organization focused on sexual and reproductive health, worked closely with health workers, religious leaders, and government structures in order to ease the accessibility and costs of maternal, newborn, and PMTCT services.

Providing antenatal care has proven to lower HIV prevalence among pregnant women. A study conducted from January 2006 to June 2010 examined 7,887 pregnant women in the Antenatal Care Unit of Bishoftu Hospital. In 2006, the overall prevalence rate was 8.3% but declined to 4.3% in 2010. Due to the remarkable decline in HIV prevalence in the observed five-year period, researchers concluded that the involvement of male partners in HIV counseling, HIV testing, and early interventions targeted at HIV-negative individuals are vital.*

Prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) includes:
• Antenatal care and testing for HIV
• For HIV-positive women, antiretroviral treatment
• For infants, antiretroviral treatment within 72 hours of delivery

In order to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, the mother must stick to a regular regimen of medications while pregnant and breastfeeding.

Says Ababa**, an HIV-positive mother, “Now I know my daughter doesn’t have it while I have it, I’m very happy. It changes everything for me.”

*”Trend of HIV prevalence among pregnant women attending Antenatal Care Unit of Bishoftu Hospital, Ethiopia”, PubMed July 2013.
**Name changed for anonymity.

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