Malaysia eliminates HIV transmission from mother-to-child

02 November 2018

Malaysia celebrates milestone victory for preventable diseases in babies.

Malaysia becomes the first country in the Western Pacific region to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of both HIV and syphilis, officially validated by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier in October.

No child should be born with either HIV or syphilis, but it remains a significant challenge for low- and middle-income countries to break this cycle of transmission. An estimated 13,000 women living with HIV become pregnant in the WHO Western Pacific region each year, and one in four do not receive the antiretroviral treatment (ART) they need. 

HIV can be transmitted from an HIV-positive woman to her child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, and accounts for the vast majority of new HIV infections in children. Prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programmes provide ART to HIV-positive pregnant women to stop their infants from acquiring the virus. Without treatment, the likelihood of HIV passing from mother-to-child is 15% to 45%. However, ART and other effective PMTCT interventions can reduce this risk to below 1%.

An estimated 45,000 pregnant women in the region have syphilis infection – which can result in foetal loss and stillbirth, neonatal infections and death. But simple preventative treatment by way of penicillin can eliminate this risk. 

Malaysia was one of the early global adopters of PMTCT programming for HIV and syphilis – starting antenatal screening in 1997. Today, services are fully integrated within their Family Health Programme, and testing is provided free of charge and virtually all women have access to quality health services including contraception and births assisted by skilled healthcare workers. This strategy has dramatically reduced the number of babies born with either syphilis or HIV, compatible with global elimination criteria. 

“Achieving elimination is not the end of our struggle to ensure every Malaysian child starts life healthy and free of HIV and syphilis,” said Malaysia’s Minister of Health, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad. 

“It’s the beginning of a never-ending journey to provide exceptional quality of care to prevent all infections that pass from mother to child. The next target we’re aiming for is hepatitis B. It is my sincere hope that this programme, which is a source of national pride and importance, shall be further enhanced in the years to come through constant engagement with civil society and strong political support.”

Photo credit:
iStock/YinYang

Written by Caitlin Mahon

Content Specialist - HIV & Sexual Health

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