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Germany

Africa Untouched by West's Success in Battling AIDS

As the UN General Assembly convenes a special conference on AIDS, the rapid progress made in Germany and the West in preventing the infection passing from mother to child hasn't been repeated in places like Africa.

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Africa needs more help to tackle transmission of HIV to newborns

The newborn baby lying on the tiny bed at the maternity ward at Munich's Women's University Clinic is just a few days old, but she's already been through several medical examinations.

Luckily for her, her future seems bright and healthy, although her mother's been HIV-positive for the past seven years.

"I'm really calm now, I wasn't in the beginning," said the baby's mother, Steffi Müller ( name changed). "My partner is also healthy, and so only I posed the risk, but my blood samples are really good. And that's why I'm optimistic."

Welt-AIDS-Tag rote Schleife p178

The West has made strides in fighting the HIV virus

Müller, who's been undergoing treatment at the Munich clinic ever since she became pregnant, received a strong drug cocktail to suppress the HIV virus and the levels of the virus in her blood were monitored regularly. In the 38th week of her pregnancy, two weeks before the expected birth, doctors performed a Caesarean on Müller using a technique that involves the lowest possible amount of blood to prevent the child from coming into contact with her mother's infectious body fluids.

New medicine drastically cuts transmission rate

Birth is the most crucial step for an infant whose mother carries the HIV virus, said Andrea Gingelmaier, a doctor at the Munich clinic. She added that the child is largely protected in the womb from the virus due to the placenta.

Gingelmaier pointed out that rapid strides have been made in the West in preventing the HIV virus from being transmitted from mother to child.

"In 1994, a big study in America found out that a natural transmission rate, which lies between 20 and 25 percent when it comes to HIV transmission from mother to child, could be pushed by down by two-thirds to under 8 percent simply through medicines," said Gingelmaier. "And if you combine that with a Caesarean, the transmission rate can be pushed down further to under 2 percent. Today we often use not just one medicine, but several different ones -- a so-called combination therapy. And with that we're currently down to a HIV transmission rate of under 1 percent."

Steffi Müller's daughter has gotten off to a good start in life. She has to be treated with antiretroviral syrups for about four weeks until the doctors confirm that she's in the clear and hasn't been infected by her mother.

In addition, Müller isn't allowed to breastfeed. Experts reckon that breastfeeding alone, depending on the duration, can increase the risk of HIV infection in a baby by about 45 percent. Almost every second HIV-positive child worldwide is infected through breastfeeding, said Gingelmaier.

Schulkinder / Aids-Waisen in Nairobi (Kenia)

Children are particularly susceptible to the HIV virus

According to the World Health Organization, of the more than three million people who have died of AIDS worldwide, half a million have been children. The overwhelming majority of HIV-positive children are infected with the virus during or immediately after birth, the WHO says.

Success not repeated in Africa

But the admirable progress made in Germany and the rest of the western world in combating AIDS is hardly being repeated in the rest of the world, particularly in Africa.

A lack of proper medical infrastructure, exorbitantly high prices for medicines and a lack of awareness about things like breastfeeding are some of the main reasons why negligible transmission rates from mother to child in Germany are unlikely to be reached in Africa in the foreseeable future, according to Gingelmaier.

"It's a huge problem in these countries. Even if the woman doesn't breastfeed it's a problem, because you're then exposed as being HIV-positive and have to deal with social stigmatization," said Gingelmaier.

The UN for its part has said that it simply lacks the funds for a concerted effort to battle the infection in Africa.

The UN special commissioner for HIV/AIDS, Stephen Lewis, has said that the Global Health Fund, into which all big industrialized countries pay money to combat health problems such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in developing countries, is in dire need of more funds. It lacks more than $3 billion (2.3 billion euros) for the years 2006 and 2007, he said.

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