HIV among children is a growing problem, particularly in the countries hardest hit by theAIDS epidemic. The overwhelming majority of infected children acquire the infection throughmother-to-child transmission. Prevention of HIV infection in infants and young children isnow a high priority and has been the rallying point for enhanced prevention efforts.
HIV/AIDS among children in the year 2001
While HIV infection among infantsis a problem all over the world, it is
Impact of HIV/AIDS on
HIV/AIDS is wiping out years of progress in improving
child survival in Africa
child survival. It is already responsible for substantiallyincreasing the mortality rates of children under 5 years
Proportion of under-5 mortalityattributable to HIV/AIDS in sub-
of age, which could double in some countries by the
year 2010 due to the impact of AIDS.
Timing and risks of transmission
In the absence of any intervention, rates of mother-to-child transmission of HIV can vary from 15% to 30%
without breastfeeding and can reach from 30% to45% with prolonged breastfeeding. Studies have
shown that transmission can take place during
10% to 20%
pregnancy, labour or delivery and can affect infants
and young children as long as breastfeeding continues.
Less than 5%
Rates of transmission have been estimated, as follows:
Out of region
Overall with breastfeeding till 18 to 24 months
de Cock, JAMA
In June 2001, during the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) onHIV/AIDS, 189 Member States declared their commitment to take action to:
"By 2005, reduce the proportion of infants infected with HIV by 20 per cent, and by 50 percent by 2010 … "
The rate of transmission of HIV from infected pregnant women to their infants has decreased toless than 2% in industrialized countries through the use of highly effective antiretroviral drugregimens for the prevention of vertical transmission (or for treating the mother) combined withelective Caesarean section and replacement feeding from birth. Some other countries, suchas Thailand, have also succeeded in reducing the number of children infected with HIV.
Achieving similar results in other developing countries, some of which are severely affected bythe AIDS epidemic, will require addressing many challenges and solving some key problems.
Decline in paediatric AIDS cases in Thailand
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Seroprevalence in womenattending antenatal clinics
A rapid decline in the number of AIDS cases among children under 5 years of age has beenobserved in Thailand since programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIVwere first introduced in 1997. This decline in the number of paediatric cases is alsoassociated to a reduction in the prevalence of HIV among women attending antenatalclinics, as a result of intensive HIV prevention efforts.
A comprehensive approach to prevent HIV infection in
A framework for action to prevent HIV infection in infants and young children
prevent transmission to infants and young children
HIV-infected women, their infant and family
To meet the UNGASS goal, a number of interventions need to be in place; they address thefollowing aims:
• Primary prevention of HIV infection.
Avoiding infection in women will contribute
significantly to the prevention of HIV transmission to infants and young children, as well as to
other prevention goals. HIV prevention programmes need to be directed at a broad range of
women at risk – and their partners. A particular effort is required to reach young people with
relevant services. Because primary HIV infection during pregnancy and breastfeeding poses
an increased threat of mother-to-child transmission, HIV prevention efforts should also
address the needs of pregnant and lactating women, especially in high prevalence areas.
• Prevention of unintended pregnancies among HIV-infected women.
infected women in the developing world are unaware of their serostatus. Family planning
services need to be strengthened so that all women, including those infected, can receive
support and services to prevent unintended pregnancies. Women known to be infected
with HIV should receive essential care and support services, including family planning and
other reproductive health services, so that they can make informed decisions about their
future reproductive lives.
• Prevention of HIV transmission from HIV-infected women to their infants.
A package of specific interventions has been identified to prevent HIV transmission from
an infected mother to her child. It includes antiretroviral drug use, safer delivery practices,
and infant-feeding counselling and support. Here too, counselling and testing plays a key
role so that HIV-infected women can learn their status in good time to draw the full benefits
of this package.
• Provision of care and support to HIV-infected women, their infants and family.
Programmes for the prevention of HIV in infants and young children will help identify large
numbers of HIV-infected women who need special attention. Strengthening the linkages
among those programmes and programmes for the care and support services of HIV-
infected women, their infant and their families will ensure that the women themselves also
get access to the services they need. Such services might include the prevention and
treatment of opportunistic infections, the use of antiretroviral drug therapy, psychosocial
and nutritional support, and reproductive health care, including family planning. With
improvements in the mother’s survival and quality of life, the child too will accrue important
benefits. Access to care and support should also enhance community support for
programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission and increase the uptake of critical
interventions, such as HIV testing.
Specific interventions to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV
Antiretroviral drug use. A number of antiretroviral drug regimens – based on zidovudine,
zidovudine and lamivudine or nevirapine, or combinations used in highly active antiretroviral
therapy (HAART) – have been shown to be effective in reducing mother-to-child
transmission of HIV. The choice of antiretroviral regimen should be made locally, taking
into account issues of feasibility, efficacy and cost.
Safer delivery practices. It has been shown that elective Caesarean section can help to reduce
the risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission. This, however, may not be an appropriate
intervention in resource-constrained settings, because of limited availability, cost and the risk
of complications. Invasive obstetrical procedures, such as artificial rupture of membranes,
fetal scalp monitoring and episiotomy, may increase the risk of transmission of HIV to the
infant. Their use in HIV-infected women should be limited to cases of absolute necessity.
Infant-feeding counselling and support. Breastfeeding can add to the risk of HIV
transmission by 10-20%. Lack of breastfeeding, however, can expose children to an increased
risk of malnutrition or infectious diseases other than HIV. While avoiding breastfeeding
would seem logical when the mother is HIV-infected, striking the necessary balance of
risks is in fact more complicated. All HIV-infected mothers should receive counselling that
includes information about the risks and benefits of various infant feeding options, and
guidance in selecting the most suitable option for their situation. When replacement feeding
is acceptable, feasible, affordable, sustainable and safe, avoidance of all breastfeeding by
HIV-infected mothers is recommended. Otherwise, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended
during the first months of life and should then be discontinued as soon as it is feasible.
For many years now, the cost of antiretroviral drugs has been seen as the key hurdle toimplementing interventions that can prevent HIV infection in infants and young childrenin resource-constrained countries. Now, with the negotiation of more advantageous pricingagreements , as well as large-scale donations of some drugs, the possibility of pregnantwomen in these countries having access to antiretroviral drugs has increased enormously.
Even with the cost barrier removed, many hurdles to implementing interventions remain.
The most important may be the inability of health systems in some of the worst affectedcountries to deliver the necessary services. In many of these countries, the use ofantenatal care is too limited at present to provide efficient and widespread interventionsthat prevent HIV infection in infants and young children.
Moreover, antenatal care must be used effectively. It is often restricted to one visit only(or happens late in pregnancy) and may not be associated with skilled assistance by ahealth care worker at the time of delivery. Furthermore, in many of the countries wherethe need is greatest, access to voluntary
Based on WHO estimates, the percentage
counselling and testing – essential if women
of women receiving antenatal care, defined
seeking antenatal care are to know their HIV
as at least one visit, ranges from 20% to
status and make use of specific prevention
99% in Africa, with an average of 62%.
and care interventions – seldom exists. To en-
The percentage of women having a pro-
able wide delivery of the interventions needed
fessionally attended delivery ranges from
to prevent HIV infection in infants and young
2% to 99%, with an average of 36%.
children, these issues must be addressed.
The task of helping countries prepare to engage in this effort is enormous, and WHO iscommitted to working with its traditional partners – ministries of health, internationalagencies, nongovernmental organizations and people living with HIV/AIDS – to make theprevention of HIV in infants a reality, especially in the hardest hit developing countries.
Highlighting the importance of prevention
WHO is committed to keeping the focus on the best and most humane ways to preventtransmission of HIV to infants and young children – that is, keeping young women free frominfection. HIV prevention, in general, is a key focus for WHO’s Department of HIV/AIDS.
Including HIV in family planning programmes
Through the efforts of its Department of Reproductive Health and Research, WHO willbuild on its long history of supporting countries to improve the quality and coverage of theirfamily planning and other reproductive health services. It will also continue to advocate fora shift in emphasis in family planning programmes, with greater attention being given tosimultaneously preventing infection and pregnancy (dual protection). In some cases, thiswill entail greater emphasis being placed on the use of condoms, both male and female,as a primary family planning method.
Strengthening the infrastructure for preventing HIV infection in infants
Expanding antenatal care services.
If preventing HIV infection in infants and young
children is to be successful, women must have expanded access to antenatal care and
must use the services more frequently and earlier in pregnancy than is currently the case.
To address this issue, WHO will support maternal and reproductive health programmes in
countries through its Making Pregnancy Safer Initiative.
Increasing access to voluntary counselling and testing.
Even if women use antenatal
care services, they must have access to voluntary counselling and testing to detect any
HIV infection and must be offered specific interventions to prevent vertical transmission of
HIV. Expanding access to voluntary counselling and testing is a major challenge, and WHO
is contributing to address it by developing guidelines and tools for the implementation of
those services, whether they be free standing or linked to antenatal care and other
reproductive health services.
Extending skilled attendance to all births.
Another important focus of WHO’s Making
Pregnancy Safer Initiative is increasing the number of pregnant women assisted by a skilled
health care worker during childbirth. This is vital to ensuring the appropriate use of
antiretroviral drugs for preventing perinatal transmission and to ensuring timely infant-
feeding counselling and support.
Promoting the integration in health systems.
To be successful on the scale that is
needed and hoped for, the prevention of HIV infection among infants and young children
must become an integral part of the health system of a country, especially in those countries
most heavily affected by HIV. The relevant departments in WHO are working together to
strengthen health systems, to facilitate this integration.
Increasing access to HIV care
WHO is intensifying efforts to increase access to HIV care in resource-limited settings, whilestrengthening linkages between prevention and care activities – to maximize the impact of both.
Programmes for the prevention of HIV in infants and young children are identifying large numbersof women infected with HIV. WHO is developing guidance on key elements of a comprehen-sive approach to care, treatment and support for these women, their infants and their families.
Keeping abreast of the science.
WHO actively reviews developments in the science
that underlies the prevention of HIV infection in infants and young children, assessing the
strength of evidence and highlighting key gaps in the research base. This is an important
service to countries, many of which do not have timely access to complete information on
scientific developments and are thus at a disadvantage in developing and improving
prevention policies and programmes.
Choice and use of antiretroviral drugs.
WHO is reviewing the evidence and developing
guidance that countries need to enable them to choose among a range of options for the
use of antiretroviral drugs for preventing mother-to-child transmission, and for treating HIV/
AIDS-related conditions. WHO has developed guidelines for a public health approach to
scaling up antiretroviral therapy in resource-limited settings.
Support for infant feeding programmes.
How best to feed an infant when the mother
is HIV-infected is a complicated issue. WHO is supporting research that explores ways to
make breastfeeding safer, which will facilitate the decisions mothers must make about
feeding options. Tools that support counselling of HIV-positive mothers on replacement
feeding are also being developed.
Monitoring and evaluation.
The cost and complexity of the interventions for preventing
mother-to-child transmission make it essential to assure that the effort and expense are
justified. WHO is working with its partners to develop the indicators that will assess the
performance of programmes in developing countries and will monitor the progress made
towards reaching the UNGASS goal. In addition, the long-term safety of antiretroviral-drug
use (for both mother and child), the possibility of developing resistance to antiretroviral
drugs and the continuing efficacy of chosen regimens all require careful monitoring and
evaluation. WHO is committed to helping its partners implement monitoring and evaluation
systems capable of tracking these important issues.
While most of the world’s attention is focused on providing antiretroviral
drugs to decrease perinatal transmission, it is possible that the greatest prevention impact
may come from investments in preventing HIV infection in young women and in assisting
HIV-positive women to prevent unintended pregnancy. WHO is developing models to assess
under what conditions investments in prevention of HIV infection in infants and young
children will yield the most substantial and cost-effective results.
Technical support to countries for a public health approach to prevention and
WHO is committed to helping countries deliver both the best HIV prevention and the
best HIV/AIDS-related care. In doing so, WHO hopes to elaborate the links and mutual
benefits between prevention and care and to develop and strengthen a public health
approach to confronting the AIDS epidemic in the future.
World Health Organization 2002
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is complete and correct and shall not be liable for any damages incurred as a result of its use.
For more information, contact: WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION
- Family and Community Health Cluster - Department of HIV/AIDS
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