World health officials say Cuba has become the first country in the world to receive validation that it has eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.
The achievement was hailed as a breakthrough for Cuba’s women and children and one that could serve as a public health guidebook for other countries.
While Cuba is the first to reach the designation, several other countries have started the process. More than 20 nations have expressed an interest in reaching a similar designation, which came from the World Health Organization.
The United States is believed to have met the requirements, but has not yet requested validation, according to Massimo Ghidinelli, the top HIV expert for the Pan American Health Organization, which helped announce the achievement at a Tuesday press conference.
“This example will surely show that we have the technology, we have the tools, we have the know-how of how to do it. It’s a matter now of doing it,” said Dr. Mickey Chopra, chief of health at UNICEF, who also helped announce the news.
He added that achieving the goal was both “a momentous achievement for the women and children of Cuba” and “inspiring for others across the region.”
Other world health officials called it a “major victory” that showed “ending the AIDS epidemic is possible.”
Officials from Cuba, the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization, and other organizations made the announcement Tuesday.
According to the WHO, every year an estimated 1.4 million women living with HIV become pregnant, and without treatment have a 15-45 percent chance of transmitting the virus to their children during pregnancy, labor, delivery or breastfeeding. The use of antiretroviral medicines for both mother and child can drop that to 1 percent.
Beyond that, nearly 1 million pregnant women worldwide are infected with syphilis annually, the WHO said. Screening and treatment during pregnancy can eliminate much of the early fetal loss, neonatal death, low-birth-weight infants and serious neonatal infections that can result.
For the past several years, the WHO has helped nations work to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. Elimination is defined as reducing infection rates to such a low level that they no longer constitute a public health problem.
For HIV, that means fewer than two in 100 babies born to women with HIV; for syphilis, less than one case for every 2,000 live births.
It represents a major step in Cuba toward an AIDS-free generation.
The Cuba designation included a five-day visit by world health officials to the island nation in March to tour health centers, laboratories and government offices.
Among other things, WHO officials said Cuba has worked to ensure early access to prenatal care, HIV and syphilis testing for both pregnant women and their partners, as well as treatment for women who test positive and their babies.
The WHO said that in 2013, only two babies were born with HIV in Cuba, and only three were born with congenital syphilis.
HIV births are also down throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, dropping 45 percent from 2010 to 2013.
Six countries and territories of the Americas, in addition to Cuba, are in a position to request validation for their elimination of mother-to-child transmission of both HIV and syphilis: Anguilla, Barbados, Canada, Montserrat, Puerto Rico and the U.S. the WHO said.