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The small box that will save the unborn

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By Ntsebeng Motsoeli

MASERU – The mother baby pack is just a small box.

But within it lies the power to save lives – that of the mother and her unborn baby.

The pack is a unique take-home box of anti-retroviral drugs that is given to all pregnant mothers.

The simple yet brilliant idea came from two humble nurses in rural Butha-Buthe.

The idea has been adopted and refined by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the WHO.

It has been successfully adopted and implemented in countries such as Kenya, Cameroon and Zambia.

The drugs save mothers from dying while protecting babies from contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes Aids.

It is not surprising that Health Minister Mphu Ramatlapeng is ecstatic about the impact the package is set to have in Lesotho.

It is the best thing that has happened in the fight to ensure an Aids-free generation in the country, health workers say.

They say the package could drastically reduce mortality among children under the age of five.

The numbers had been very discouraging over the past 10 years.

During the period the number of children dying from HIV-related illnesses had increased from less than 90 to 113 per 100 000.

These numbers have been worrying aid agencies such as the United States-based Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric Aids Foundation (EGPAF).

But this is set to change.

Under the new treatment regime all expectant mothers in Lesotho will be put under treatment to prevent them from passing on the virus to their unborn babies.

The purpose, Ramatlapeng says, is to intensify the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

This will give the mother every chance not to infect her unborn baby, she says.

This is a sharp departure from the past.

In the past all pregnant HIV positive mothers were enrolled in the Anti-Retroviral Treatment programme in their 28th week.

But now all pregnant women will be enrolled at week 14.

Likomo Lefaso, a pregnant woman from Butha-Buthe, says she is excited by the new package.

In a telephone interview with the Sunday Express Lefaso says it is “a relief to know that her unborn baby can be safe from HIV”.

Lefaso was among the pregnant mothers who were the first to be given the mother baby pack at its launch at Butha-Buthe government hospital two weeks ago.

“This is a good idea. I am going to enjoy the rest of my pregnancy knowing that no matter what happens, my baby will be born without HIV,” Lefaso says.

“I may have not tested positive but we have been taught during maternal clinics that you cannot know for sure that you are negative until further tests are done.”

Another pregnant mother who is living with HIV says she is excited because the package is being given to all pregnant mothers regardless of their HIV status.

“This is another way of fighting discrimination against people who have the infection like me.

“People will not have to stare at us because everyone will come out of the consultation room with a box in hand. I am very happy that the government introduced this,” she says.

The new strategy appears to be in line with sentiments from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which says giving the packs to all expectant women would get rid of stigma and discrimination.

It is not surprising that there is a buzz within health care circles regarding the new mother baby package.

“Lesotho has already succeeded in its prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission of HIV programme.

“The mother baby pack is going to make things even better. If mothers follow the instructions and visit clinics as they should, we can wipe out paeditric Aids,” a health care worker at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital who asked to remain anonymous told the Sunday Express.

Another health practitioner at the hospital says the programme could bear huge results if the government ensures that the drugs are made available to those who need them without fail.

“Hospitals have run short of drugs in the past. We hope this will not be allowed to happen regarding this programme.

“Our government has a tendency of destroying good initiatives,” she says.

Ramatlapeng has however insisted that the health ministry will ensure that the package is available at all health-care centres around the country.

“Our aim is to have at least 91.8 percent of all pregnant mothers benefiting from the mother baby package,” Ramatlapeng said at a press conference a day before the programme was launched.

“Mothers will also get all the support they will need to ensure accurate use of the treatment,” she said.

Lesotho, an impoverished country of 1.8 million that is among the hardest-hit by HIV in the world, has come a long way in its fight against paediatric Aids.

According to a 2009 HIV and Aids in Lesotho report, only 12 percent of HIV positive pregnant women were receiving antiretroviral treatment in 2005.

By 2007 this figure had increased to 32 percent and by the end of 2008 the figure had risen to 57 percent.

In 2009, 64 percent of HIV positive women received antiretroviral drugs for the prevention-of-the-mother-to-child-transmission programme.

The percentage of women who accepted an HIV test during pregnancy has also increased, thanks to the introduction of an “opt-out” testing policy.

In 2007 around 91 percent of all pregnant women had an HIV test – which was an increase from just over half of pregnant women who agreed to the test in 2005.

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