This Country Just Became the First to Eliminate Mother-to-Baby HIV Transmissions

That’s good news for the global health community.

A newborn at the Ana Betancourt de Mora Hospital in Camaguey, Cuba. (Photo: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Jul 1, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

With its focus on preventive rather than curative medicine, Cuba’s health care system has long been hailed by the World Health Organization as an example for countries around the world. The country’s forward-thinking system has proved effective and earned it a first-of-its-kind certification.

Cuba is the first country to eliminate mother-to-child HIV and syphilis transmission, WHO announced Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean transmission doesn’t happen—Cuba reported two children born with HIV and five with syphilis in 2013—but that the number is low and that transmission is no longer considered a public health risk.

“Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” said Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO. “This is a major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections and an important step toward having an AIDS-free generation.”

Each year, approximately 1.4 million women around the world who are HIV positive become pregnant. Without any health intervention, the risk of passing along HIV to the baby is between 15 and 45 percent, with up to 20 percent of that risk occurring postnatally with breast-feeding. Antiretroviral treatment given during pregnancy and after knocks that risk down to as low as 1 percent.

So, Why Should You Care? Health experts have indicated that eradicating HIV is possible without finding a cure by eliminating its spread. Cuba’s feat proves that preventive measures can have big results.

But these techniques are not as widely available in developing countries. Along with free access to health care, Cuban health experts credit their success to cesarean births and breast milk substitutions. HIV is most prevalent in sub-Saharan African countries, where C-section rates are often as low as 1 to 5 percent, according to a 2014 study. WHO recommends 5 to 15 percent of all births be delivered as cesareans to ensure knowledge of this often lifesaving measure. Cuba’s cesarean rate is at about 35.6 percent, according to WHO’s most recent figures.

Despite Cuba’s success with formula, WHO recommends that mothers breast-feed their babies for the first two years of life. It’s often the only option for women in developing countries who don’t have access to the clean water needed to mix with formula.

Cuba isn’t the only country that has made progress. More than a third of the 22 countries responsible for 90 percent of new HIV infections—including Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Malawi—cut their rate of infection in half between 2009 and 2013, Reuters reports. That number translates to a similar decline in babies born with HIV globally, down from 400,000 in 2009 to 240,000 in 2013. A lot more work needs to be done to meet the lofty 2015 goal of just 40,000 children born with HIV.