A national campaign to stop new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive was announced on 16 November by the Kenyan Minister for Public Health and Sanitation Beth Mugo. The new initiative is part of Kenya’s commitment made at the 2011 United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS in New York and marks an important milestone in the national AIDS programme in Kenya.
HIV is the leading cause of all deaths in the country and contributes to 20% of maternal deaths and 7% of all deaths in children aged less than five years old. An estimated 13 000 children became newly infected with HIV in 2011. Kenya is one of the 22 countries listed as a priority country under the Global Plan - which provides the foundation for country-led movement towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children and keeping their mothers alive.
The new campaign aims at mobilizing citizens, and especially women of reproductive age, to access HIV prevention services. The Government of Kenya has committed to improve the quality of HIV services available by providing all HIV-positive pregnant women with life-long antiretroviral therapy (ART) even after delivery (a strategy known as Option B+).
Ms Mugo acknowledged the multiple benefits of providing HIV positive pregnant women with life-long ART, which include preventing HIV transmission to their children and improving the overall health of HIV-positive mothers. Ms Mugo noted however, that the implementation of this approach will be gradual and will require a strengthened health system. “Let us not focus solely on HIV services, but adopt an integrated service and multi-sectoral approach to keep our mothers and children alive,” she said.
Placing women at the centre
Women living with HIV have been central to the campaign through the Kenya Mentor Mothers programme, where HIV-positive mothers provide advice and encourage other pregnant women to access HIV services.
Mercy, an HIV-positive mother of three, works as a mentor mother in the new programme. She benefited herself from accessing HIV services to prevent HIV transmission to her children and stressed that stigma initially made it difficult for her to access HIV prevention, treatment and care services. She highlighted that stigma and discrimination are continuous barriers to HIV services and must be addressed in order for the campaign to be successful.
“I was lucky to have had access to health services. My baby is negative because of the information, services and support I received from the health facility,” said Mercy. “Today I serve my community as a mentor mother where I support HIV positive pregnant women and encourage them to adhere to treatment and exclusive breastfeeding.”
The role of men is also taken into account in the new campaign. “Maternal and Child health has been complicated and slowed by HIV. Worse still, maternal and child health is affected by the poor male involvement,” said the Director of Medical Services, Dr Francis Kimani. He called on men to fully participate in ensuring that their children and their mothers are healthy and encouraged men to know their HIV status and to accompany their partners to all visits to the antenatal clinics.
UNAIDS Country Coordinator Maya Harper noted that services for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV are a key entry point to providing HIV services to the entire family. “This campaign is an excellent opportunity to catalyze a new movement for family planning, reproductive health and rights in the country,” she said.
The event also saw the launch of the National Strategic Framework to guide the implementation of the campaign for the year 2012 – 2015 in addition to the National Communication Strategy for the elimination of new HIV infections among children and the National Guidelines for peer education to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.