Thailand is first country in Asia to free babies from HIV and syphilis
Sixteen years ago, Anya Nopalit was thrilled to learn she was pregnant, but then she received devastating news.
“I learned that I had HIV. I was really sad and disappointed. I wondered, why did this happen to me?” said Ms Nopalit, who lives in a fishing village in Chantaburi Province in southeast Thailand.
Her doctor encouraged her to have an abortion, but she was determined to keep her baby. “I thought what will be will be,” said Ms Nopalit.
Luckily for her, in the very same year Ms. Nopalit learnt about her diagnosis, Thailand became one of the first countries in the world to start providing free antiretroviral therapy (ART) to pregnant women living with HIV. Untreated, women living with HIV have up to a 45 percent chance of transmitting the virus to their children during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding. However, the risk drops dramatically if HIV treatment is given to both mother and child.
Ms Nopalit followed the treatment regimen advised by her doctor and her son was born HIV-free.
“I was so happy when the doctor told me he was HIV-negative,” said Ms Nopalit.
Thailand’s early commitment to stopping babies from being born with HIV has saved many lives and on 7 June the country received validation for having eliminated not only the transmission of HIV but also of syphilis from mothers to their children. During a ceremony taking place in New York, on the eve of the United Nations General Assemby High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS, the Minister of Health of Thailand was presented with a certificate.
“Thailand has turned around its epidemic and transformed the lives of thousands of women and children affected by HIV,” said UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé. “Thailand’s progress shows how much can be achieved when science and medicine are underpinned by sustained political commitment.”
According to the Thailand Ministry of Public Health In 2015, the number of children who became infected with HIV was 86, a decline of more than 90% sin the past 15 years.
At the Tha Mai Hospital in Chantaburi Province, where Ms Nopalit accesses her HIV treatment pediatric HIV cases have become uncommon.
“For the last three years, there were no new cases of mother-to-child transmission,” said Monthip Ajmak, Senior Nurse, Antenatal Care, Tha Mai Hospital.
An international expert mission convened by the World Health Organization and including experts from UNAIDS and UNICEF visited Thailand in April. One of the factors behind Thailand’s remarkable achievement is a well-developed national health system which provides quality services in even the most remote areas. According to Thai health authorities nearly all pregnant women are routinely screened for HIV and if they are found to be HIV-positive, the women start lifelong high active ART. More than 95% of pregnant women diagnosed with syphilis also receive treatment.
In Thailand, healthcare services for mothers living with HIV are fully integrated into maternal and child health programmes in hospitals and are covered by Thailand’s universal healthcare coverage.
“Staff of the public sector receive continuous training from basic counseling skills to providing a treatment regimen,” said Dr Danai Teewanda, Deputy Director-General, Department of Health, Thailand Ministry of Public Health.
Community leadership has ensured mothers living with HIV are linked to hospitals and supported throughout their pregnancy. The Best Friends Club at the Thai Mai Hospital has 160 members who include men and women living with HIV. The club is divided into three groups, with more recent members meeting every month and longtime members meeting twice a month.
“Our club provides counseling services at the antenatal clinic. We coordinate with the hospital staff and provide information to women on how to take care of themselves,” said Malinee Vejchasuk, Counselor, Best Friends Club.
Ms Nopalit and her husband wanted to have another child. Four years ago, she gave birth to her second son.
“I am so happy that my two children are healthy and HIV-free. They are lively and play like normal kids,’ said Ms Nopalit.
When he is not in school, her eldest son now accompanies his parents when they go fishing for crabs, which is the family business. The youngest son likes to run around the beach and build sand castles.
As Thailand becomes the first country in Asia to ensure an AIDS-free generation, mothers like Ms. Nopalit no longer fear pregnancies. They can watch their children grow with expectation and excitement, like many other mothers.