Anti-AIDS efforts make big gains in stopping child infections

The infection of 1.1 million children was averted between 2005 and 2013 through treatment of their HIV-carrying mothers, according to a new UNICEF report. The vast majority of the gains came in sub-Saharan Africa, where 24.7 million live with the virus.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP
A volunteer pins a red ribbon on a sex worker and a child in the red light district of Mumbai, India, on World AIDS Day on Monday. UNICEF reports that about 1.1 million children averted infection between 2005 and 2013.

The number of HIV infections among children declined more than 50 percent between 2005 and 2013, a welcomed milestone as the world marks the 26th World AIDS Day on Monday.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that infection of about 1.1 million children under the age of 15 was averted during that time through programs for preventing mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT). With an estimated 34 million people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and more than 35 million dead from the disease, such progress marks a significant step in the fight against one of the most devastating pandemics in history.

“If we can avert 1.1 million new HIV infections in children, we can protect every child from HIV – but only if we reach every child,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement. “We must close the gap, and invest more in reaching every mother, every newborn, every child and every adolescent with HIV prevention and treatment programs that can save and improve their lives.”

UNICEF says the advancements made in preventing children from contracting HIV stems from expanded access to PMTCT programs, which treat infected mothers with long-term antiretroviral therapy to prevent the virus from spreading to their children. Sixty-seven percent of pregnant women living with the virus in low- and middle-income countries received the drugs in 2013, compared with 47 percent in 2010.

"The infections were averted thanks to life-saving drugs given to the mothers," says Kate Donovan, a UNICEF spokeswoman.

As a result, the decline in the number of new HIV infections in children since 2009 has been greater than it was over the entire previous decade, according to UNICEF. 

The sharpest decline in HIV infections among children occurred between 2009 and 2013 in eight countries in Africa, stretching from Ethiopia (57 percent) to South Africa (50 percent). Malawi, a small landlocked country in southeastern Africa, saw the biggest drop (67 percent). 

Last year, 240,000 children were diagnosed with the disease – 88 percent of who were in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where 24.7 million live with HIV, accounts for 71 percent of all cases worldwide. About 1.2 million people are living with virus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the steady progress, UNICEF reports that the global goal of reducing infections in children by 90 percent between 2009 and 2015 remains out of reach. In 2013, 67 percent of pregnant women infected with the virus in low- and middle-income countries received the most effective antiretroviral medications.

Meanwhile, AIDS continues to pose a major threat to adolescents between 10 and 19 years old. Adolescents are the only age group that did not see a decrease in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2013. All other age groups experienced a decline of nearly 40 percent.

The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) announced last month that an expanded approach to fighting the virus could help avert 28 million new infections and 21 million AIDS-related deaths by 2030. It warned that if the world failed to scale up its efforts over the next five years, the rate of new HIV infections would likely outpace that of today.

“We have bent the trajectory of the epidemic,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said in a statement. “Now we have five years to break it for good or risk the epidemic rebounding out of control.”

UNAID's plan calls for increased anti-retroviral therapy and closing the treatment gap for children. It also outlines the need for increased funding. For the strategy to work, UNAIDS estimates that low-income countries will require a peak of $9.7 billion in 2012; lower-middle-income countries will need $8.7 billion.

“If we invest just US $3 dollars a day for each person living with HIV for the next five years we would break the epidemic for good,” Mr. Sidibé said.

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