Malaysia first in region to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis

(From left) Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom; Minister of Health Malaysia Dzulkefly Ahmad; Papua New Guinea Minister for Health and HIV/AIDS, Honourable Sir Dr Puka Temu; and WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Shin Young-soo. — Picture courtesy of Ministry of Health
(From left) Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom; Minister of Health Malaysia Dzulkefly Ahmad; Papua New Guinea Minister for Health and HIV/AIDS, Honourable Sir Dr Puka Temu; and WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Shin Young-soo. — Picture courtesy of Ministry of Health

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 8 — Malaysia has become the first country in the Western Pacific to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis to the point that it is no longer a public health problem.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) presented Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad with a certificate of elimination during the 69th session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific today in Manila, Philippines.

“Thanks to Malaysia’s efforts over the past several years, parents can now ensure their babies are born free of HIV and syphilis and have a healthy start to life,” said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, in a joint statement by WHO regional office for the Western Pacific, Unicef regional office for East Asia and Pacific, UNAIDS Asia Pacific and Malaysia’s Ministry of Health.

“Elimination could not have been achieved without Malaysia’s strong commitment to ensuring access to quality and affordable health services for all women, children and families.”

Malaysia started providing services in prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV and syphilis in 1998 and 1988 respectively, according to the Health Ministry. Today, antenatal testing and treatment for HIV and syphilis are provided free of charge in Malaysia.

The statement also claimed that essentially all women in Malaysia have access to health services like contraception and skilled attendants for childbirth. However, government clinics typically only provide birth control pills to married women, despite the Health Ministry claiming that it did not discriminate against unmarried women. 

The statement noted that the number of babies born with HIV or syphilis has been reduced to a level that is considered to be an elimination of the problem.

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

“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 strong political support and regular engagement with civil society.”

The statement noted that about 13,000 women who became pregnant in the WHO Western Pacific region lived with HIV and one in four did not receive antiretroviral therapy. When both mother and baby get the medicine, the risk of HIV transmission drops to just over 1 per cent, compared to a 15 to 45 per cent chance of transmitting the virus to the infant without the treatment.

“This elimination is a remarkable achievement that puts Malaysia at the forefront of the global effort to ensure that no child is born with HIV or congenital syphilis. A combination of political commitment, stronger systems for health, and timely prevention, diagnosis and treatment is the key to success,” said Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

“All countries should follow Malaysia’s example and ensure that every child has an HIV-free start to his or her life.”

Karin Hulshof, Unicef regional director in the East Asia and Pacific, said early testing, diagnosis and treatment were the key steps to eliminating mother-to-child transmission.

“Malaysia should be congratulated for being one of the first countries to introduce national initiatives to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis in maternal and child health services,” she said.

* A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.

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