Speaking Out

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Wed Jun 29, 2011

The UN Must Release Updated Statistics on the Prevention of Vertical Transmission

A June 28 story in the Miami Herald, "Stopping child infections key to AIDS fight, U.S. says," quotes a UNICEF statistic estimating that "53 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women in developing countries received antiretroviral drugs to prevent them from transmitting the virus to their babies." Unfortunately, this statistic is incorrect and misleading, but the reporter of the story would have no way of knowing this because the various United Nations agencies have failed to publish new statistics based on more accurate data.

The 53 percent statistic, published by the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and UNICEF in 2010, was held up as evidence of the success that has been achieved in reducing the risk of vertical transmission of HIV. However, this statistic included women who received a single dose of the antiretroviral drug nevirapine. Not only is this intervention less effective than other approaches in preventing transmission of the virus, but it also puts the life of the mother at risk by increasing her chances of developing drug-resistant strains of HIV. When women who receive single-dose nevirapine during their pregnancy begin antiretroviral treatment for their own health, they are more likely to experience treatment failure because of this drug resistance. The intervention is seen to be dangerous enough that the WHO has urged countries to stop using it and move to safer and more efficacious regimens. Despite this, of the 53 percent of women who received drugs to prevent vertical transmission, 30 percent received only a single dose of nevirapine. Including these women as part of the ‘success story’ is misleading at best.

In 2011, thanks to pressure from AIDS-Free World, the UN agencies have stopped including women who received only single-dose nevirapine in their statistical tables. They have so far failed, however, to publish new statistics that will give us a more honest picture of the work that still must be done to eradicate the vertical transmission of HIV while protecting the health of both the mother and her baby. The reason, no doubt, is that the number will fall well below 53 percent, and they fear creating the impression that fewer pregnant women are being reached. This information is too important, and the damage of allowing the deceptive older statistics to continue to proliferate too serious, to continue to withhold accurate figures. The world needs to know where we stand and how much work there is still to do.