Here’s a bit of good news for the country on the health front: Malaysia has become the first country in the Western Pacific region (which also includes Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore), to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The news gets even better with the fact that mother-to-child transmission of syphilis has also been eliminated. Earlier in October, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially validated this status for Malaysia, and it’s certainly a welcome update in view of World AIDS Day earlier this month.
It started in 1997 when antenatal screening was introduced for pregnant mothers, when Malaysia became one of the early global adopters of the Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission (PMTCT) program for HIV and syphilis. Thanks to free testing for both conditions and easy access to contraception as well quality health services, the numbers of babies born with either HIV or syphilis has decreased dramatically.
Praises for Malaysia
“Thanks to Malaysia’s efforts over the past several years, parents can now ensure their babies are born free of HIV and syphilis and have a healthy start to life,” said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “Elimination could not have been achieved without Malaysia’s strong commitment to ensuring access to quality and affordable health services for all women, children and families.” (Source: The World Health Organisation)
However, Malaysia’s Minister of health Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad has stated that it is not the end of the struggle to ensure every child lives free of HIV and syphilis.
“Achieving elimination is not the end of our struggle to ensure every Malaysian child starts life healthy and free of HIV and syphilis. It’s the beginning of a never-ending journey to provide exceptional quality of care to prevent all infections that pass from mother to child,” said Dr Dzulkefly. “It is my sincere hope that this programme, which is a source of national pride and importance, shall be further enhanced in the years to come through strong political support and regular engagement with civil society.”
Said Ms Karin Hulshof, UNICEF Regional Director, East Asia and the Pacific, “Malaysia should be congratulated for being one of the first countries to introduce national initiatives to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis in maternal and child health services.”
Prevalence of PMTCT HIV and Syphilis in the Region
According to the WHO news release, the assessment on Malaysia was conducted by independent experts on the elimination of mother-to-child transmission. The assessment itself was conducted by a Regional Validation Team convened by the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific, jointly with WHO Malaysia, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, and UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific. Their findings were reviewed and confirmed by the Global Validation Advisory Committee.
WHO numbers around 13,000 women becoming pregnant in the WHO Western Pacific region each year are living with HIV. Of this, one in four are not receiving their antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART is important to avoid the 15% to 45% chance that the virus will be transmitted to the baby during pregnancy, labour, delivery or even breastfeeding. The risk drops to just over 1% with medication.
Additionally, 45,000 women in the region who get pregnant have syphilis. The disease could result in early fetal loss and stillbirth, neonatal infections and even death. These can be easily avoided with simple, cost-effective screening and treatment with penicillin during pregnancy.
Prevention Is Always Better Than Cure
Of course, to truly eliminate diseases spread via mother-to-child transmission, the disease or spread of the virus itself needs to be eliminated. In a set of normative guidelines on HIV and AIDS released by the WHO, the organisation recommends key methods to prevent transmission of HIV:-
- by practicing safe sexual behaviours, like using condoms
- getting tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, to prevent onward transmission
- avoid injecting drugs, and always using sterile needles and syringes if injection is necessary
- ensure that any blood or blood products you might need are tested for HIV
- access voluntary medical male circumcision if possible
- if you have HIV, start antiretroviral therapy as soon as possible for better health while also preventing transmission to your partner of infant (for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers)
- use pre-exposure prophylaxis prior to engaging in high risk behaviour; demand post-exposure prophylaxis if there is the risk that you have been exposed to HIV infection in both occupational and non-occupational settings.
Protect Yourself While Helping End AIDS
Condom manufacturer Durex has partnered with (RED), the organisation founded by U2 lead vocalist Bono and other social activists, to raise funds to contribute to the fight against AIDS in South Africa. From 1 December 2019, (DUREX)RED products are available for sale on the Lazada website, with funds raised from its sales going directly to a programme in South Africa. The ‘Keeping Girls In School’ programme aims to reduce HIV infections as well as pregnancy rates among young women by encouraging them to commit to getting their education. This not only helps them prevent infection, but ensures a better future with better employment potential as well.
The (DUREX)RED Box retails for RM39.90 on Lazada Malaysia.