Lest We Forget About the 33 Million…

Pamela Barnes

Recent advances in HIV prevention promise to catalyze the global effort to reverse the spread of HIV. But we also must ensure that the estimated 33 million already living with the virus have access to quality sexual and reproductive health services.

This post is published as part of our series in recognition of International Human Rights Day 2010 on Friday, December 10th.  Read more International Human Rights Day 2010 posts here.

The year 2010 has seen its fair share of breakthroughs in HIV prevention. A stunning new study released in late November revealed that a single daily dosage of antiretroviral pills can help protect healthy gay men from contracting HIV. Months prior, a separate study demonstrated how a simple microbicidal gel can significantly reduce a woman’s chances of infection during sex.

Tremendous developments like these promise to catalyze the global effort to reverse the spread of HIV. But preventing new infections is just one dimension of the HIV challenge we face today. The other involves ensuring that the estimated 33 million men, women, and children already living with the virus have access to quality sexual and reproductive health services.

In fact, the number of women living with HIV today continues to climb—but not just because of new infections, which according to the newest data are declining. Rather, through enormous investments in care and treatment programs, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, women are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives, with a virus that is no longer de facto tantamount to a death sentence. Many HIV-positive couples are able to consider their long-term futures, including becoming parents to healthy, HIV-free infants.

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In the United States today, mothers carrying the virus can receive HIV treatment, prenatal care, and postpartum support for themselves and their newborn children, along with counseling to plan a family—all in one place. In poor communities around the world, however, a pregnant woman visiting an HIV clinic may miss out on the broader set of maternal, sexual, and reproductive health care services she needs to stay healthy, avoid transmitting HIV to her child, and reduce the chances of unintended pregnancy in the future.

The good news is that we have solutions that come organically from the communities where we work. EngenderHealth has helped make comprehensive, integrated reproductive health care a reality for HIV-positive women in places like Tanzania and Kenya. Today, Tanzanian women who come in for prenatal care are getting screened for HIV. Those who test positive receive the medication and care they need to deliver HIV-free infants. They also receive advice on how to avoid unintended pregnancy and decrease the future chances of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

In the Nyanza Region of Kenya, EngenderHealth partnered with the Ministry of Health to pilot an innovative family care-centered approach offering a range of services that any family member may need—mother, father, or child—all under one roof. These services include HIV prevention, care, and treatment; family planning; malaria and tuberculosis treatment; child visits; and sexual and reproductive health care. Prior to the APHIA-II Nyanza project, these services were offered at separate sites. To date, about 40,000 mothers have benefited from these integrated health services, enabling them to protect their children and the future of their families.

This is a picture of holistic health care and a vision for the future. To build on similar progress in countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda, greater investments are needed to ensure quality reproductive health care and to improve the lives of millions of women and families around the world.

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