In 2012, more than 200 000 children were newly infected with HIV among the 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where almost 90% of the world's HIV transmissions to children occur. While this was a 38% decline from 2009, it still means that nearly 600 children were newly infected each day.
As part of on-going efforts to improve the health of women and children across Africa, the African Union recently convened an international conference on maternal, newborn and child health in Johannesburg, South Africa. The conference, which runs from 1 to 3 August, addresses a number of important issues including service delivery and quality of service, access to medicines, family planning and task shifting. It also looks specifically at the impact of HIV on women and children and how to ensure increased access to essential HIV services.
"As leaders we have the power to ensure that no woman dies giving life. We also have the power to ensure that no child dies from an avoidable cause," said the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma during the opening ceremony of the conference.
Stopping new HIV infections among children and ensuring their mothers have access to HIV services including treatment for their own health is a top priority for UNAIDS. In 2011, UNAIDS and PEPFAR spearheaded a new initiative which has been embraced by the global community. The Global Plan to eliminate new HIV infections among children and keeping their mothers alive (Global Plan) has set the ambitious goal for 2015 of reducing new HIV infections among children by 90% and reducing AIDS-related maternal and paediatric mortality by 50%.
To highlight the urgent need to scale up progress, UNAIDS held a special session at the conference to build on momentum around the Global Plan and address bottlenecks in the African countries where most new HIV infections among children occur. During the session UNAIDS reported that while seven countries have shown a rapid decline in new HIV infections (50% or more decline between 2009 and 2012), six others are showing signs of stagnation (less than 30% decline), and the remaining seven show moderate performance (30-49% decline).
"We need to reflect on how we shift the paradigm of how we are working today. The paradigm is a disease approach, but we need a holistic approach. We cannot afford to have women coming in to the facility and being addressed for TB on one day; HIV on another day... We need to consider her as a woman – a whole human being – who needs holistic support," said UNAIDS Executive Director, Mr Michel Sidibé.
The African Union is a strong supporter of the Global Plan and has actively advocated for increased efforts to expand access to HIV services for women and children.
"The focus on maternal, newborn and child health is not expenditure, it is an investment. It is an investment in our common humanity and our common survival… We can do it, we must do it. We have no choice," said African Union Chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.