In the quarter century since the first AIDS cases were diagnosed, medical science has made remarkable progress. But we’ve learned a hard lesson – breakthroughs in laboratories are only half the battle. If treatments never reach patients, lives are lost prematurely and needlessly. So, as we mark the 20th annual World AIDS Day on December 1, we need to commit to delivering the best available treatments and prevention services to more – and eventually to all – patients who need them.
One medical breakthrough with huge life-saving implications is the development of medicines and services that greatly reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In the absence of any intervention, HIV-positive mothers have a greater than one-in-three chance of passing the virus on to their babies during pregnancy, delivery, or through breastfeeding. But science has reduced those odds to 1 in 50 in the United States, Europe, and other nations with advanced medical care. As a result, we’ve dramatically reduced mother-to-child transmission of HIV here.
In the developing world, however, it’s a very different story. Ninety percent of HIV-positive mothers and their newborns never get these life-saving medicines, because the medical infrastructure isn’t able to deliver them. Women don’t know these medicines and services are available, and clinics are few, distant, and frequently without the medicines their patients need. Some medical professionals lack the training to deliver this care.
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation is working to change that. With the support of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and many private donors, we are working with ministries of health in the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child and to treat children and families affected by HIV/AIDS. The clinics we support around the world have reached more than three million women with HIV testing, and have provided those women who are found to be positive with medications to block HIV transmission to their newborns as well as ongoing care and treatment.
But much more needs to be done. More than 400,000 children will be infected with HIV this year, mostly from mother-to-child transmission of the virus. Without treatment, half of these children will die before their second birthday; three in four will die before they turn five. Those who survive will face a host of debilitating illnesses requiring life-long medical care.
That’s why we are asking policy makers to ramp up efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Medical science has taught us how to keep most newborns free of HIV. Now we need to build the infrastructure necessary to deliver life-saving care to everyone who needs it. When we do that, we will stop mother-to-child transmission worldwide, save millions of children, and transform the very nature of the battle against AIDS.