ZAMBIA: New testing method set to improve child survival

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Many pregnant women in Zambia are still being missed by the prevention of mother-to-child transmission programme. Once a child is infected, the early diagnosis made possible by PCR testing offers their best chance of survival.
Lusaka, 26 July 2007 (PlusNews) - A new testing method will make it possible for babies below the age of 18 months to be accurately screened for HIV. Infants up to this age still carry their mother's antibodies and, using the usual testing method, can test HIV positive when, in fact, they are negative.

"Until now, the only sure way available for mothers to know their baby's status has been through confirmatory HIV tests after the baby is 18 months old," Dr Albert Mwango, antiretroviral coordinator at Zambia's Ministry of Health, told IRIN/PlusNews. The new testing method uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines to detect the virus.

Only three laboratories in Zambia have PCR machines: the University Teaching Hospital and the Kalingalinga Clinic, both in Lusaka, the capital, and the Arthur Davison Hospital in Ndola, in northern Copperbelt Province, but tests can now be conducted on dry bloodspot samples, which are easy to collect and send through the post.

Sending one batch of hundreds of dry bloodspot samples by an express mail service would cost between US$3 and $5, which is cheaper than buying PCR machines for every district hospital.

"This is something we can sustain with the help of our cooperating partners. But, most importantly, we will no longer have to delay treatment by waiting for confirmatory tests after [babies reach] 18 months," Mwango said.

Studies show that without intervention, 40 percent of HIV-positive mothers transmit the virus to their children, leaving an estimated 80,000 Zambian children infected. If there is no diagnosis or treatment, about 50 percent of these children will die before their second birthday.

The new testing method will make it possible to test over 30,000 children a year. Training manuals developed in conjunction with a number of donor agencies will provide health workers with guidance on how to use the new method.

Dr Max Bweupe, coordinator of prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) at the health department, told IRIN/PlusNews that HIV testing for mothers at antenatal clinics was already routine, and about 25 percent of infected children were receiving treatment. This number is expected to increase as routine HIV testing is integrated into reproductive health services.

But according to Dr Chipepo Kankasa, head of paediatrics at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH), the country's only referral facility, rising numbers of children are being infected with HIV because many pregnant mothers are still being missed by the PMTCT programme.

The use of PCR testing at UTH makes early diagnosis possible, greatly improving an HIV-infected infant's chances of survival. Sixty percent of children at the hospital who test positive are younger than six months.

Zambia has an estimated adult HIV infection rate of 17 percent.


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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