The government of Kenya has released new statistics which show that the country has around 104,000 children infected with HIV/AIDS. However, officials estimate that three-fifths of these youngsters are not receiving the anti-retroviral therapy which can prolong their lives. Health experts say that in many cases this is simply because parents do not know their children are HIV positive.
Speaking at the launch of the 2012 Kenya Aids Indicator Survey, with his remarks reported in a recent article by Reuters Alertnet, the director of the Disease Control and Prevention Centres for Global Health said the issue of HIV prevalence in children was “an area that needs attention”. In particular, the director highlighted how more needs to be done to prevent mother-to-child transmission, since nearly all children born to HIV positive mothers will become infected with HIV at birth without medical intervention.
Mother-to-child transmission rates have been declining in Kenya, falling from 28% in 2005 to 8.5% in 2012. However, with the right programmes in place, transmission rates can be brought much lower, as already been shown in countries such as Algeria and Botswana. This is because most children can be protected from inheriting the disease at birth when HIV-positive mothers are given medication to prevent transmission. But for this to happen, HIV-positive mothers need to be identified through screening programmes.
Free maternity services introduced
Nearly all women in Kenya are now tested for HIV when they visit antenatal clinics, but more has to be done to encourage women to attend. As one vital step, on 1 June this year, the Kenyan government introduced free maternity services in state hospitals and clinics. This has resulted in a rapid rise in the number of women delivering in hospital, from 10% to 50%. The challenge is now to persuade the remaining 50% to give birth in health facilities. Currently, a home delivery is seen by many poorer households in rural areas as the only viable option, since women living in more remote areas find it hard to afford the cost of travel to the nearest hospital or clinic.
Health officials hope greater awareness about the ability to reduce HIV infections in children will encourage more women to make the trip. This will ensure children born to mothers with HIV have a much greater chance of remaining free of the disease or where infants are infected, that they can receive early treatment. Approximately one-third of HIV positive babies who receive no treatment die before their first birthday and around half before their second. Therefore, ensuring Kenya’s infants are in the right place at the right time really is a matter of life and death.