by By Ronald Ssekandi, Yuan Qing
NAPAK, Uganda, Sept. 19 (Xinhua) - Michel Sidibe, head of UNAIDS and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, has said all indicators show that Uganda will meet global commitments to reduce the rate of new pediatric HIV infections to five percent by 2015.
Sidibe told Xinhua in an interview on Sept. 16 in the semi-arid northeastern Ugandan district of Napak that Uganda is likely to reduce the number of new HIV infections among children by 90 percent, and the number of AIDS-related maternal deaths by 50 percent, by 2015.
"I'm sure without any doubt that by 2015, Uganda could be free of babies born with HIV," he said shortly after touring the Nadunget Health Center.
Sidibe was here to launch a program on Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission (EMTCT) in an area that is seeing increasing HIV infections driven by risky cultural practices, poverty and lack of interaction with the outside world since it was a closed community.
EMTCT includes interventions carried out to reduce the risk of HIV transmission from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, labor, delivery and breast feeding.
To conform to the World Health Organization standards, the Ministry of Health has introduced option B plus, which entails giving antiretroviral drugs to pregnant women living with HIV from 14 weeks of pregnancy, throughout labor, breast feeding, and the rest of her life.
The launch, attended by several UN agencies, senior Ugandan government officials and nongovernmental organizations fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, is one of the latest attempts to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal 6A, which targets reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.
According to the 2012 World AIDS Day report, although African countries have made strides in reducing the rate of new HIV infections, more effort is needed to reduce the number of new HIV infections among children.
The 2011 Uganda AIDS indicator survey shows that an estimated 145,000 new infections are occurring each year. Of these new infections, mother-to-child transmission contributes 16,000, or 11 percent.
Ministry of Health statistics show that in 2012, 1.6 million pregnancies occurred and about 5.5 percent of these expectant mothers were estimated to be living with HIV. This translated to 88,000 pregnant women whose babies were at risk of acquiring HIV. With an average transmission rate of 30 percent, it was estimated that about 26,400 babies could get infected with HIV in 2012 alone through mother to child transmission without intervention.
"These are very bad statistics; this is what pushes us to rise up again. We must give appropriate life-saving messages if we are going to reverse this trend," said Janet Museveni, wife of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, at the launch of EMTCT services here on Sept. 16.
Medical experts argue that several factors could explain the new HIV infection among children: lack of provision of HIV services at health centers, the stigmatization of pregnant mothers who fear their husbands finding out their HIV status, and bad cultural practices like courtship rape, an act practiced here by boys when they want to identify a girl they wish to marry.
Mrs. Museveni argues that the increasing trend of HIV infection in Uganda can be reversed and new HIV infections among children eliminated.
She is championing the EMTCT program throughout Uganda and efforts so far have shown some success.
Official statistics indicate that the number of HIV positive children has fallen to 5.9 percent in 2013 from 9.6 percent in 2010. The global commitment is below 5 percent.
"This campaign has been declared as a measure to halt the runaway rise of HIV infection in Uganda, particularly among the new born babies," said Mrs. Museveni.
She said that Uganda needs to revisit the earlier strategy of ABC, which is an acronym of "Abstinence from sex, Be faithful to your partner and using a Condom if you must have sex."
"The major reason why Uganda lost ground in its fight against the HIV infection was that ABC which we employed nationally was gradually watered down and compromised to such an extent that it has been rendered ineffective," she said. "We must go back to that strategy which worked for us and form a united front in communicating to the people, especially the young people in the reproductive group, who are the majority in our population, that HIV/AIDS is still a killer for which there is no known cure."
Sidibe said for Uganda to register more success, it needs community outreach programs to educate communities about HIV and how pregnant mothers with HIV can prevent their babies from contracting the disease.
At a meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Sept. 17, Sidibe emphasized the need to put people on treatment as early as possible as this would reduce the infection rate by 95 percent and reduce the viral load.
"Uganda brought hope to millions of people. It showed the word that AIDS can be overcome and Africans can have access to treatment. This hope was built on courage, strong leadership and partnership. Uganda needs to bring back the courage and commitment of its early days to finish the job and have a generation born free from HIV," he said, according to a State House statement issued on Sept. 18.
Uganda was recognized as a leader in Africa's HIV response and was one of the first four developing countries in the world to provide people living with HIV with access to life-saving treatment. However in recent years the country's HIV prevalence rate has increased to 7.3 percent from 6.4 percent.