Thailand has become the first Asian country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV, a milestone in the fight against the disease.
The World Health Organisation announcement is a boost for a generation of Thai health workers, who have transformed the nation from one of Asia’s most HIV-ravaged societies to an example of how to effectively tackle the crisis.
Describing the elimination as a “remarkable achievement”, the WHO said Thailand was “the first [country] with a large HIV epidemic to ensure an AIDS-free generation”.
Belarus and Armenia were also declared free of mother-to-baby HIV transmissions Wednesday, but both nations have a much lower prevalence of the virus.
Previously Cuba was the only other country to have eliminated mother-to-child transmission under the WHO’s criteria back in July 2015.
The global health body said Thailand’s routine screening and universal free medication for pregnant women with HIV was crucial in stopping the virus being passed to new generations.
If left untreated, mothers with HIV have a 15 to 45 per cent chance of transmitting the virus to their children during pregnancy, childbirth or while breastfeeding.
But taking antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy significantly reduces those chances to just over 1 per cent.
In 2000 Thailand became one of the first countries in the world to provide free antiretroviral medication to all pregnant women diagnosed with HIV.
It is a major turn-around for Thailand. The country went from 100,000 HIV cases in 1990 to more than 1 million three years later, fuelled in part by its huge sex trade.
“Thailand’s progress shows how much can be achieved when science and medicine are underpinned by sustained political commitment,” UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe said in a statement.
But there is still work to be done. The UN estimates there are some 500,000 living with HIV in the kingdom, while infection rates have risen slightly in recent years, particularly among gay men.
Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn, Thailand’s Minister of Public Health, said the landmark announcement “belongs to everyone” but added “a challenge remains: how we make this success sustainable”.