By Michel SidibÃ©
AS football fans from around the world arrived in South Africa to cheer their favourite teams at the World Cup, we must not lose sight of one unwelcome guest â€” HIV. Why should we talk about HIV during the World Cup?
Two reasons. First, a celebrated sporting event such as the World Cup can encourage the spread of HIV through the combination of alcohol and unsafe sex.
Second, almost 80 babies are born with HIV during the 90 minutes it takes to play a football match. This translates into 430,000 babies infected each year. Because we have the means to stop this tragedy, we must act today.
Football stars and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassadors Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo and Michael Ballack of Germany have joined forces with UNAIDS to launch a global campaign to prevent babies from becoming infected with HIV.
The campaign aims to mobilise the football community to â€œgive AIDS the red cardâ€ and eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission between now and 2014, when the next World Cup is played in Brazil. To date, football captains from a range of countries â€” Australia, Cameroon, CÃ´te dâ€™Ivoire, France, Ghana, Greece, Nigeria, Paraguay, Serbia, South Africa and Uruguay â€” have signed an appeal committing them to use the power and outreach of football to create an HIV-free generation.
Eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission is possible.
In high-income countries we have seen transmission rates fall from 25% to between 1% and 5%, in recent years as HIV testing of pregnant women, the use of antiretroviral drugs during and after delivery, and contraception have become widely available.
These successes are now being replicated in countries such as Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland. But more needs to be done.
In most of Africa, only 45% of HIV-positive pregnant women have access to antiretroviral drugs to prevent HIV transmission to their newborns, and just 28% of pregnant women are tested for HIV. In many African countries, AIDS has become the leading cause of death among infants and young children.
In Kenya, up to 22,000 babies are born with HIV each year, and only about two-thirds of HIV-positive pregnant women have access to antiretroviral drugs.
The Government of Kenya remains firmly committed to virtually eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV in four provinces by 2015.
Progress is being seen in South Africa, the World Cupâ€™s host country.
The South African government has shown bold leadership on AIDS in recent months with the launch of a nationwide HIV testing and treatment campaign that urges South Africans to get tested for HIV. By 2011, the campaign aims to provide free and routine HIV counselling and testing to 15 million people, up from 2.5 million in 2009 â€” a sixfold increase in just two years. And some 1.5 million people will receive antiretroviral therapy by June 2011, up from about 1 million in 2009.
As more mothers learn their HIV status and have increased access to antiretroviral therapy and contraception, HIV transmission rates are expected to drop considerably. With more effective combinations of antiretroviral drugs, South Africa could move towards the virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission.
If South Africa, the country with the largest number of people living with HIV, can break the spread of the AIDS epidemic, there is hope for other countries to join in championing the AIDS response.
As the football fever spreads across the globe, letâ€™s do everything we can to stop the spread of HIV. We have no excuse.
The writer is the UNAIDS executive director