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Thursday, 2 September, 1999, 14:41 GMT
Pregnant women offered HIV test
Two-thirds of mothers are unaware they have HIV until after the birth
Two-thirds of mothers are unaware they have HIV until after the birth
All pregnant women in England are to be offered an HIV test in an effort to reduce the rising number of babies born with the deadly virus.

Aids Special Report
The tests are to be recommended to women as part of their routine ante-natal screening, but there will be no element of compulsion.

The measures, announced on Friday by Health Minister Tessa Jowell, are designed to cut by 80% the number of babies born HIV positive by the year 2002. They are also aimed at improving treatment for women with HIV.

If women know they are infected then there is a chance they can reduce the risk of transmission from mother to baby from one in six to less than one in 20.

Women known to be HIV positive can take anti-viral drugs during pregnancy to minimise the risk of transmitting the disease to their babies during birth, while not breast feeding avoids infection through the mother's milk.

However, two-thirds of women who are HIV positive do not know they are infected.

The information can also protect doctors and other health workers, who could be at risk of infection.

Women will be "strongly advised" to have the tests, and will be told they are opting out of standard medical procedures if they refuse.

The UK has one of Europe's highest maternal HIV transmission rates
Ms Jowell told the BBC: "It is a voluntary screening programme but the value of the screening will be made clear to the mothers by those who are taking care of them.

"Generally, if you look at HIV prevention across the board compared with other European countries we are doing pretty well, but in this area - the transmission of HIV from mother to baby - our identification rate of mothers who are at risk is among the worst in Europe."

Ms Jowell said that in 1997, 265 mothers in the UK were HIV positive and as a result about 50 babies were born with the virus.

She said: "In the vast majority of cases the fact that these babies were born HIV positive could have been prevented had the mother's pregnancy and delivery been handled in the light of knowing she was HIV positive."

The General secretary of the Royal College of Midwives Karlene Davis supported the tests.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the cost of treating a baby with HIV far exceeded the cost of screening the pregnant women and "providing the treatment early".

She said the new scheme would also involve "training the midwives, because women will have to be properly counselled, with the right support to make the decision".

Test targets set

Although there is some success with anti-viral drugs, most children with HIV do not live beyond their teens.

Local health authorities will be set targets on the take-up of the tests, and the government hopes to move towards a 50% test rate.

But the move could prompt anxiety among women who do not regard the virus as a significant hazard, or among those who are worried that taking an HIV test could affect life insurance premiums.

In June, the Royal Society of Medicine Journal said low uptake of HIV testing in pregnancy in the UK had created a largely avoidable "legacy" of infected children.

In Europe, mandatory testing is currently used only in Italy.

Some HIV groups argue that money would be better spent on targeting high risk groups. Mother to baby transmission accounts for only two per cent of new HIV cases.

Stephanie Elsy, from the HIV charity The Terrence Higgins Trust welcomed the new tests, but said it was important that backup counselling and support was also available for women who were HIV positive.

She said: "The stigma still associated with HIV and Aids has profound social implications for people, and we are very concerned to make sure women get the proper support they need after diagnosis."

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13 Mar 99 | Health
UK 'complaceny' over Aids
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