THAILAND has received validation from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for being the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, and also the first to ensure an Aids-free generation.
The public health minister was presented with the certificate of validation at a ceremony in New York on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on Ending Aids. Cuba is the only other country to have eliminated such HIV transmissions according to the WHO’s 2014 criteria.
“This is a remarkable achievement for a country where thousands of people live with HIV. Thailand’s unwavering commitment to core public health principles has made elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis a reality, a critical step for rolling back the HIV epidemic. Thailand has demonstrated to the world that HIV can be defeated,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director for WHO Southeast Asia, said while presenting the certificate of validation.
“By investing in strong maternal and child healthcare and national Aids prevention measures, Thailand has demonstrated that there are ways to protect children from the global Aids pandemic response,” said Unicef East Asia-Pacific regional director Karin Hulshof. “Thailand’s achievement inspires its neighbours to greater action. There are still 21,000 infants born with HIV each year in the Asia-Pacific region, and more than 200,000 children who are growing up with HIV.”
Women living with HIV have a 15-45 per cent chance of transmitting the virus to their children during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding, but that risk drops to just over 1 per cent if anti-retroviral medicines are given to both mothers and children.
The validation certificate was granted after an international expert mission convened by the WHO visited Thailand in April. The team – including experts from Australia, Cambodia, China, Philippines, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, United States and representatives from WHO, Unicef and UNAids – checked on the progress towards elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.
One of the factors behind Thailand’s achievement was said to be the national health system that provides quality services in even the most remote areas and covers healthcare services for mothers living with HIV. According to Thai authorities, 98 per cent of pregnant women living with HIV have access to anti-retroviral therapy and the mother-to-child transmission rate has been less than 2 per cent. In 2000, an estimated 1,000 children became infected with HIV but that number shrunk to 85 in 2015. More than 95 per cent of pregnant women diagnosed with syphilis also received treatment.
Among thousands of women and children saved by Thailand’s commitment to eliminate the mother-to-child HIV transmission was Chanthaburi resident Anya Nopalit, whose thrill of being pregnant 16 years ago was devastated by news that she had HIV.
Her doctor encouraged her to have an abortion, but she was determined to keep her baby. “I thought what will be, will be,” Anya said. Luckily for her, in the very same year she learnt about her diagnosis, she followed the treatment regimen advised by her Tha Mai Hospital doctor.
“I was so happy when the doctor told me he [the son] was HIV-negative,” she recalled.
No longer frightened of pregnancies, Anya gave birth to her second son four years ago. “I am so happy that my two children are healthy and HIV-free. They are lively and play like normal kids,” she said with hope gleaming in her eyes. Thanks to the treatment and support from related agencies and communities, Anya and others living with HIV could can their children grow, like any other parent.