How the Global HIV Response Fails Women and Children

Earlier this week the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition released, “Failing Women, Failing Children: HIV, Vertical Transmission, and Women’s Health,” a scathing report that criticizes the global AIDS response for failing to meet women’s sexual and reproductive health needs, in particular their need to protect themselves and their children from HIV infections.

In a welcome departure from much that is written on vertical HIV transmission, this report focuses on women’s health and rights not as mothers but as human beings. The report points to the 900 babies who are born with HIV every day in developing countries as one direct consequence of the refusing women the HIV counseling and testing, quality prevention services, and treatment and care that they need and want to protect themselves and their children.

The report also points out that although we lament that the fact that globally only a third of pregnant women living with HIV receive treatment to prevent vertical transmission, the reality is even worse. Very few of these women are receiving the triple combination therapy that is widely offered to pregnant women living with HIV in the global North. Instead many of these women receive a single dose of nevirapine, which has been shown to be just over 40 percent effective in preventing vertical transmission. Furthermore, early exposure to this drug may cause some women to become resistant to it, preventing them from using it for their treatment as their disease progresses.

Just a few statistics from the report capture a multitude of ways in which we are failing women and children:

  • In 2007, only 18 percent of the world’s pregnant women were offered HIV tests.
  • At least three quarters of pregnant women living with HIV in 61 countries, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria, are still not receiving antiretroviral prophylaxis.
  • In 2007, only 12 percent of pregnant women living with HIV identified during antenatal care were assessed for their eligibility to receive ARV treatment.
  • Only 8 percent of the babies born to pregnant women with HIV in 2007 were tested for HIV by two months of age.

The International Treatment Preparedness Coalition concludes its analysis by offering a number of recommendations, among them a call for a new United Nations agency for women to “ensure that prevention of vertical transmission is the last in a disgracefully long line of initiatives for women to fall through the gender-impervious cracks of the UN system.”

Susanna Smith is the Program Officer for Communications at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.



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