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Cuba is the first country in the world to stop the transmission of the AIDS virus from mothers to their babies, the World Health Organization said Monday. Cuba’s also stopped the transmission of syphilis from mothers to newborns – two feats that show it’s possible to control epidemics of both infections.
“Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan. “This is a major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and an important step towards having an AIDS-free generation.”
Babies can be infected with HIV at birth or by breastfeeding if the mother is infected. If the mother gets HIV drugs before and after giving birth, and if the newborn is given drugs, the risk falls to less than 1%. But that means the mother must have been tested and know she is infected, and of course the drugs must be available.
WHO estimates that 1.4 million women with HIV become pregnant every year. Without treatment, there’s as much as a 45% chance that they will infect their newborns.
Globally, 67% of all pregnant women infected with HIV in low- and middle-income countries were able to get the drugs to protect their babies in 2013, WHO said. “The number of children born annually with HIV has almost halved since 2009 – down from 400,000 in 2009 to 240,000 in 2013,” WHO says.
In the U.S., testing and treatment of pregnant women has made mother-to-child transmission rates plummet by more than 90%. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, 162 children were infected at birth. CDC says 14% of Americans with HIV don’t know it.
Cuba’s success should encourage donors and governments to redouble their efforts, WHO said.
“It shows that ending the AIDS epidemic is possible and we expect Cuba to be the first of many countries coming forward to seek validation that they have ended their epidemics among children,” said Dr. Michel Sidibé, executive director of the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS.
Similarly, stopping syphilis transmission is easy if women get antibiotics to treat the infection. WHO says nearly 1 million pregnant women worldwide are infected with syphilis annually. That translated to 360,000 babies who were born dead or died soon after birth, were born prematurely or who were born infected in 2012.