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By Margaret Besheer
United Nations
01 December 2008

A new United Nations report says early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve the prospects for survival of newborn babies exposed to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. From United Nations headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

South African mother can not hide her feelings as her three-month old son, tested HIV positive is being photographed (file photo)
South African mother can not hide her feelings as her three-month-old son who tested HIV positive is being photographed (file photo)
The report, released on World AIDS Day, says survival rates among newborns is 75 percent higher among those that are diagnosed and begin treatment within their first 12 weeks of life. Jimmy Kolker of UNICEF says less than 10 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers are being tested during this vital period.

"That is something we can easily change. The technology is available, we simply need to scale up the interventions to be sure that those newborns are given every opportunity to survive," he said.

The U.N. warns that far too many pregnant women do not know their HIV status.

In 2007, only 18 percent of pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries were given an HIV test. Of all the HIV-positive pregnant women worldwide, only about one-third are getting anti-retroviral treatment to prevent transmission to their infant.

"Both for prevention of orphanhood, and for the reduction of transmission to newborns, reduction of transmission during breastfeeding, the testing of mothers, so that those who are eligible are getting anti-retroviral treatment for their own health, is a high priority," Kolker
said.

Although progress is being made in the battle against HIV and AIDS, the statistics are still alarming.

Of the 33 million people living with the virus worldwide, 22 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. Of that number, nearly two million are children under the age of 15.

The U.N. report calls on member states to scale up programs that provide for early diagnosis of infants exposed to HIV and treatment of infected children. It also urges expanded access to anti-retroviral drugs for infected women.

U.N. agencies are also calling for improved education to help with prevention of new infections - particularly programs geared to young people, as nearly half of all new infections occur among 15 to 24-year-olds.

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