South Africa has charted a significant decline in mother-to-child HIV transmission for the second consecutive year, with new data showing that just 2.7 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mums contracted the virus by six weeks of age, compared to 8 percent in 2008.
The new figures - recently released by South Africa's Medical Research Council (MRC), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the US Centres for Disease Control and others - represent a significant decrease from those presented in June 2011, when 3.5 percent of all babies born to women living with HIV had contracted the virus before, during or shortly after birth.
The research, conducted between April 2011 and March 2012, shows there are also fewer disparities between the rates in South Africa's nine provinces than those released in 2011, when they ranged from nearly 6 percent to about 2.5 percent.
Significant improvements were recorded in provinces where the provision of prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) services had been poor, such as rural areas in Mpumalanga and Free State provinces, as well as Western Cape, but less than 2 percent of babies born to women living with HIV in these regions now contract the virus.
Without treatment, up to 40 percent of babies born to HIV-positive women could become infected with the virus during pregnancy and delivery, but the risk drops below 5 percent when the women have access to PMTCT services.
Researchers estimate that about 120,000 infant HIV infections were averted as a result of expanded provision of PMTCT services.
South Africa's Health Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, welcomed the results and said that if this success could be sustained, it would help curb high infant mortality rates fuelled by HIV - 42 out of every 1,000 babies born die before the age of one in South Africa.
Current PMTCT figures only tracked babies until they were six weeks old, but Motsoaledi said the government and its research partners are planning surveys to examine what percentage of mother-to-child transmission occurs after this point.
To further reduce the mother-to-child transmission risk, the country started promoting exclusive breastfeeding in April 2012.
"As we implement our exclusive breastfeeding policy, I would like us to ensure that all eligible HIV-positive mothers are on antiretroviral therapy for the duration of breastfeeding, so that there is no HIV transmission after six weeks of age," said Motsoaledi. "It is imperative that infants born HIV negative remain HIV negative."
After mixed feeding, in which mothers combine breast milk and solids, was found to increase the risk of infants contracting HIV through their mother's milk, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) recommended exclusive breastfeeding for HIV-positive mothers on ARVs in the infant's first six months of life to reduce the risk of transmission.