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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
New hope for the children of Lesotho
By Kate Silverton
BBC Breakfast

Combating the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa remains a challenge for the entire world. The issue will play high on the agenda at the upcoming G8 summit.

Children in Lesotho
The next generation of Lesotho's children

UNICEF invited me to Lesotho to take a look at a new initiative to help pregnant women avoid passing the virus on to their babies.

Lesotho is a tiny kingdom sitting among the vast plains of South Africa.

It has a population of just over two million people. Almost a third of them have HIV.

With life expectancy here now at just 39, this is a country that fears for its future.

If it's to survive it needs to find a way of creating a new generation that is born free of HIV and UNICEF is supporting a government campaign that aims to do just that.

It wants everyone in the country to be tested for the virus, and has committed the drugs for treatment should they test positive.

The village of Mokhotlong
The village of Mokhotlong

It's also actively promoting a programme that teaches HIV positive mothers how to avoid passing on the virus to their children.

The risk of passing on the virus can fall from 35% to just 2% if a mother follows a few simple steps.

If she takes the right drugs during pregnancy and after birth and exclusively breastfeeds for six months, her child is likely to be born HIV free.

It sounds incredibly simple - and goes against local customs where young infants are given a mix of traditional food as well as breast milk - but new research from the World Health Organisation has found that breast milk can actually protect the child from the virus.

The feeding has to be exclusive however because anything other than breast milk can serve as an irritant in the gut and allow the virus to pass through.

Kate at Leribe hospital
Kate at Leribe hospital, where one mother's child was HIV negative

I met mothers, overjoyed having followed the programme, who had just given birth to HIV negative children, despite they themselves being infected.

Puleng Motsoari is HIV positive. She has already lost two children to AIDS, I met her in Qoqolosing village a day after she gave birth to her healthy baby daughter.

She followed the UNICEF programme last year and gave birth to a son who was HIV negative.

As she breastfed her new daughter she told me how confident she was that her new baby would be free of the virus too.

Kate in Lesotho
A dose of medicine for a pregnant mother can be as cheap as 68p

"I was overjoyed when I found out that my son was born free from HIV and so thankful for the advice I received at the clinic and the medicine I was given during labour.

"Two of my children died from AIDS related illnesses but now I have hope because my son has a chance to live a healthy life."

But the take up of the PMTCT (prevention of mother to child transmission) programme is still too low.

The mountainous landscape makes journeys to health clinics tremendously difficult for the people who live in the Highlands.

There are still too few medical staff to administer drugs and counsel mothers and the stigma surrounding AIDS means people are still leaving it too late to seek help.

Maseru, Lesotho
Maseru, Lesotho: A difficult landscape for travelling

But I leave Lesotho with some hope.

Having seen signs of real change; that given the government's continued investment and support from agencies such as UNICEF, we might see a new generation of children being born free of HIV.

A generation that could help ensure the survival of this beautiful country.

  • Watch Kate Silverton's special reports from the links to the right of this page

    Kate Silverton in Lesotho
    Part 1: UNICEF's Born Free campaign

    Kate Silverton in Lesotho
    Part 2: Making progress

    BBC Breakfast


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