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Covid-19 lockdowns to push HIV mother-to-child transmissions


By Bernard Mpofu 

A prominent Aids activist has warned that Zimbabwe is in danger of recording a reversal in gains made in the fight against the mother-to-child-transmission of HIV due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. 

Tendayi Westerhof, the national coordinator for PAN-African Positive Women’s Coalition Zimbabwe, said pregnant women struggled to access prenatal care facilities during lockdowns. 

Westerhof said many women were forced to deliver at home due to the restrictions on travel that were first imposed in March last year when Zimbabwe first went into lockdown to slow down the spread of Covid-19.

“Pregnant women had challenges in registering for anti-natal care, viral load testing and getting prophylaxis for the baby born from an exposed mother,” she said.

“Some deliveries of babies were done outside health institutions because of the lockdowns. 

“So, the prevention of mother-to-child transmission programme was impacted negatively.

“Therefore, there is an anticipated increase of infant vertical transmission of HIV during that period.”

Last year, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR), raised the red flag over security personnel manning checkpoints, who blocked people from accessing health facilities on the pretext that they were enforcing lockdown regulations. 

ZADHR said the constitution was clear that “no person may be refused emergency medical treatment in any health institution.” 

Zimbabwe, which in 2009 was experiencing a mother-to-child HIV transmission rate of 30%, is considered to be one of the success stories in sub-Saharan Africa in efforts to eliminate the risk of the mother-to-child transmission of the virus.

The transmission rate had fallen to below seven per cent by 2017. 

Prior to the lockdown, almost every pregnant woman had access to anti-retroviral medicines and this contributed to the decline in new infections among infants.

Observers, however, say the gains are at risk of being reversed because of the limited access to health facilities during the Covid-19 induced lockdowns.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Zimbabwe recorded a significant decline in access and utilisation of ‘preventive, curative and rehabilitation health services after the imposition of the Covid-19 lockdown in March last year.

“Furthermore, outpatient consultation declined by 49 percent in 2020 (April to October) compared to the same period in 2019,” OCHA says in its latest Zimbabwe situation report.

“For maternal health services, attendance at the fourth antenatal visit declined by 55 percent in 2020 (April to October) compared to the same period in 2019. 

“On access to HIV services, there was a 45 percent decrease of the number of people tested for HIV in 2020 (April to October) compared to the same period in 2019.” 

Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world at 12.9 percent for the adult population, with women being the hardest hit as 15.3 percent are living with the virus. 

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