| Updated at: 0950 PST, Wednesday, December 01, 2010|
LONDON: It's no great medical breakthrough, just a simple Color-coded box packed with HIV drugs and pictures, but its backers UNICEF hope it may help finally end transmission of the often deadly virus to babies.
The mother-baby pack, dubbed "innovation for an HIV-free generation" will be distributed to 30,000 pregnant women in Kenya, Cameroon, Lesotho and Zambia starting from this month.
It contains all the medicines and instructions needed to protect an HIV-infected mother and her newborn, even if she never visits a health clinic again until after the baby is born, and even if she can't read properly.
"We don't need any scientific breakthroughs or new technology to tackle this problem," said Jimmy Kolker, head of HIV and AIDS at the United Nations children's fund (UNICEF). "What we need is a way to empower women to take charge of their own care."
Evidence in developed countries, where there is now virtually no transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS from mothers to babies, shows that, as Kolker says, all the medicines and healthcare knowledge are already there to halt it worldwide.
It is the logistics of getting the right drugs to the right people at the right time that is proving the biggest barrier in poorer countries to eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission -- a goal the United Nations has said it wants to reach by 2015.
"In the developed world, there are now very few babies born HIV positive, but in Africa there are still over 1,000 born every day," Kolker said in an interview. Eliminating mother-to-child transmission by 2015 was an "ambitious goal," but one that could be reached with some new ideas, he said.
More than 50 percent of HIV-positive women in sub-Saharan Africa in 2008 did not get the drugs they needed to prevent transmission of the virus to their children, according to data from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
The AIDS virus infects about 33.4 million people around the world and 22.4 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.
The World Health Organization says an estimated 430,000 children were newly infected with HIV in 2008, the vast majority of them through mother-to-child transmission. Yet this kind of spread of the disease is preventable if services are available.
Children born with HIV face lifelong disease and, if they're lucky, lifelong medication. In Africa at least half of them will die before their second birthdays without medical intervention.
"We're still missing a lot of mothers because they don't come back to the clinics, or because the clinics are short of drug supplies, or because the mothers don't take the drugs when they're supposed to," said Kolker.
At around $70 per box, the mother-baby pack costs less than half of what it would take to give even a year of drug treatment to an HIV positive baby, UNICEF says.
"It's cost-effective from every point of view," said Kolker. "It's something that can be done at a village level and followed up by a community health worker or mothers group. It doesn't need a nurse or doctor to follow through."
The pack will also simplify the procurement, ordering and distribution of drugs and healthcare since it is a one-stop-shop, with a complete course of medicines and instructions to halt mother-to-child HIV transmission.