Thailand is the first country in Asia to free babies from HIV and syphilis
Sixteen years ago, Anya Nopalit was thrilled to learn that 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 south-east 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, in the very same year that Ms Nopalit learned about her diagnosis, Thailand became one of the first countries in the world in which pregnant women living with HIV had access to free antiretroviral therapy. Untreated, women living with HIV have up to a 45% 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 stop babies from being born with HIV has saved many lives and in June 2016 the country received validation from the World Health Organization (WHO) for having eliminated not only the transmission of HIV but also of syphilis from mothers to their children.
According to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, the number of children who became infected with HIV in 2015 was 86, a decline of more than 90% over the past 15 years. The rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Thailand declined from 13.6% in 2003 to 1.1% in 2015. The WHO global guideline considers mother-to-child transmission of HIV to be effectively eliminated when the rate of transmission falls below 2%.
At the Tha Mai Hospital in Chantaburi province, where Ms Nopalit accesses her HIV treatment, paediatric 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.
One of the factors behind Thailand’s remarkable achievement is a well-developed national health system that 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 antiretroviral therapy. More than 95% of pregnant women diagnosed with syphilis also receive treatment.
In Thailand, health-care services for mothers living with HIV are fully integrated into maternal and child health-care programmes in hospitals and are covered by Thailand’s universal health-care coverage.
“Public sector staff receive continuous training, from basic counselling skills to providing a treatment regimen,” said Danai Teewanda, Deputy Director-General, Department of Health, Thailand Ministry of Public Health.
Community leadership has ensured that 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 long-time members meeting twice a month.
“Our club provides counselling 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, a counsellor with the 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 their friends,” said Ms Nopalit.
When he is not in school, her eldest son now accompanies his parents when they catch crabs, which is their family business, while their youngest son runs around the beach and builds sand castles.
Thailand has received validation for having eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, becoming the first country in Asia and the Pacific region and also the first with a large HIV epidemic to ensure an AIDS-free generation. Meet Anya Nopalit, a mother living with HIV who has two HIV-negative children.