Sub-Saharan Africa has seen the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infections across the world and today 23.5 million people live with HIV in the region. The United Nations AIDS programme (UNAIDS) has identified 21 priority countries in Africa for tackling the disease and results of widening access to treatment are encouraging, particularly with regards to infections among the young. Across the priority countries, UNAIDS reports that there were 130,000 fewer new HIV infections among children in 2012, representing a drop of nearly 40% since 2009.
This drop is mainly thanks to more widespread availability of antiretroviral therapy for mothers infected with HIV. In sixteen African countries, more than three-quarters of pregnant women living with HIV now receive antiretroviral medicines. Such treatment helps prevent HIV from being transmitted from mother to child. According to a UNAIDS special update published last month, Botswana leads the way for progress in this area, having virtually eliminated cases of mother-to-child transmission.
Apart from Botswana, six of the other priority countries have also seen dramatic reductions in new HIV infections among children, managing to cut the incidence rate of HIV (ie new cases) in youngsters by half since 2009. These countries –Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia – demonstrate that progress in reducing new infections can be significant when treatment is focused on the right people and in the right places. In a recent Reuters article, the global AIDS coordinator in the US was reported to have called on the international community to “continue working together to see a day when no children are born with HIV”. The UNAIDS special update on Africa reiterates this theme by quoting an African proverb – “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”.
Despite the successes in reducing AIDS-related deaths and new infections, much work remains. Though treatment rates in African countries have increased by 20% between 2011 and 2012, millions still live without medication. The problem is particularly acute for children infected with HIV/AIDS. In most of the priority countries, only three in every ten children who test positive are receiving the medicines they need. UNAIDS calls this level of treatment for children “unacceptably low”. Nevertheless, the organisation remains optimistic the situation can be improved as African countries and international donors work together towards a shared vision of “zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths”.