Breastfeeding has been considered essential for the development of the baby for centuries; but what if you are faced with the problem of having to breastfeed your child when there is a risk of transmitting a disease? This is the reality faced by many nursing mothers living with HIV in Ukraine since February of this year, when Russia invaded the country. Health systems in many areas that are or have been occupied have collapsed. Due to a shortage of formula milk, many mothers without access to antiretroviral treatment are breastfeeding their babies, increasing the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
This World AIDS Day no mother should have to choose between letting her baby starve or becoming infected with HIV.
In the year 2000 I found out that I was HIV positive and pregnant. I did not have access to necessary HIV treatment. However, I was incredibly lucky to give birth to a healthy and virus-free baby.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case for pregnant women living with HIV. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that HIV-positive mothers breastfeed their babies as long as they have access to antiretroviral treatment and have monthly viral load tests done. However, many of the new mothers living with HIV in Ukraine right now have no choice. The war in Ukraine has destroyed the country’s health care system, with attacks on more than 700 health facilities and untold numbers of health workers and patients displaced, injured or killed.
In the year 2000 I found out that I was HIV positive and pregnant. I did not have access to necessary HIV treatment
Before the war started, the Ministry of Health of Ukraine planned to request a certificate from the WHO declaring the end of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the country. This harrowing war is very likely to stop that achievement dead in its tracks. In 2001, mother-to-child transmission of HIV reached 27.8% in the country, but in 2021 it had fallen to 1.3%. When new data is released in 2023, it is very likely that it will have increased enormously. Despite remarkable achievements in this fight in recent years, Ukraine has the second largest HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
HIV-positive pregnant women in Ukraine desperately need help from governments and the humanitarian community to prevent the next generation of the country’s babies from contracting HIV. There is hardly any access to health workers with sufficient experience in managing cases of mothers living with this virus and in preventing mother-to-child transmission, without stigma or discrimination, especially in the western parts of Ukraine, which are home to a large number of internally displaced
Mothers and their babies also need antiretrovirals, basic medicines, sanitary kits and food. From my organization, Positive Women, we have been able to offer these services, but this does not cover all needs.
Despite remarkable achievements in this fight in recent years, Ukraine has the second largest HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
We have received help from other organizations, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has provided Ukraine with US$15 million (almost €15 million) in emergency funding and provided vital medicines, equipment and supplies, including generators to supply power to health facilities without electricity. The foundation has also received funding from the Global Fund to provide care and support for women and their children.
However, more action is needed by governments and organizations around the world. As human beings, we have a duty to help people who are voiceless and vulnerable. We must not allow this war to undo decades of fighting mother-to-child transmission of this virus in Ukraine. We must protect the next generation of children from HIV infection, especially when we have the medicines to prevent it.
This World AIDS Day, think of the most vulnerable people suffering in Ukraine and help us start 2023 healthier and happier.
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