Thailand poised to eliminate new HIV infections among infants

Thailand, U.S. seek to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV

The Director-General of Thailand’s Department of Health, Dr. Pornthep Siriwanarangsan, announced today the launch of a new initiative to virtually eliminate mother-to-children transmission of HIV (eMTCT) in Thailand by 2016. The international community has made eMTCT a global public health priority.

Dr. Pornthep was joined during the announcement by leaders from Thailand’s Department of Disease Control and Department of Medical Sciences, as well as high-level officials from the Thai Red Cross, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC).

The announcement was made during Thailand’s first National Conference on HIV/AIDS in Maternal and Child Health. Her Royal Highness (HRH) Princess Soamsawali of Thailand presided over the opening of the conference and spoke about the impressive progress that Thailand has made in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT), as well as some of the future needs.

“The Department of Health’s PMTCT program is a good practice and is aligned with the national HIV prevention strategy, with the goal to get to zero new HIV infections. In order to achieve that goal, however, more advanced biomedical interventions are needed,” said HRH Princess Soamsawali. “Strong stakeholder involvement is also crucial.”

Thailand has long been recognized as a global HIV/AIDS leader, with a publicly-funded universal healthcare coverage program that includes life-saving antiretroviral therapy (ART). Previous Thai innovations in PMTCT led to 99% coverage of HIV testing and counseling among pregnant women and greater than 80% coverage of highly active ART (HAART), dramatically reducing new HIV infections among infants to about 120 cases per year (a 2.3% rate in 2013 according to national estimates). Thailand would have to reduce this rate to less than 2% (and the number of new HIV infected infants to less than 70/year) by 2016 to meet international criteria for elimination. But Thailand has set even more ambitious goals for itself (such as a rate less than 1.5%) that it hopes to achieve by 2017.

Given the success of Thailand’s PMTCT program, the country’s declining overall HIV prevalence, and its well-developed health service system, leaders are optimistic that Thailand may soon be one of the first countries in Asia to eliminate new HIV infections among infants.

“Thailand is close to achieving a seminal public health accomplishment,” said Dr. Mitchell Wolfe, Director of the U.S. CDC in Thailand. “I think this initiative is a good example of what U.S. President Obama was referring to when he said last year that ‘if we channel our energy and compassion into science-based results, an AIDS-free generation is within our reach.’” The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is assisting and learning from Thailand’s efforts to eliminate new HIV infections among infants.