HAVANA TIMES, Feb 23 — “Confronting the realities of pregnancy and HIV isn’t easy. In April, I’m going to mark the 11th year since I was diagnosed,” said Ivon Delgado. Nevertheless, concerning her pregnancy, she told me, “It was planned. I’m 33, so if I wait any longer I’ll be entering the at-risk age.”
In 2011, 93 mothers with HIV/AIDS gave birth on the island, with 92 of these children born completely healthy. Cuba’s success was recognized by the World Health Organization for its bringing down the infection rate to less than 2 percent.
Ivon revealed to me that the secret is in strictly maintaining one’s anti-retroviral treatment so that the level is undetectable, eating well and getting regular checkups. “During the first few months I had about four medical consultations a week.”
Cuba spends $150 million annually on various programs aimed at fighting the virus. I got that figure talking with Dr. Maria Gisela Lantero, the head of the department of HIV/AIDS infection at the Ministry of Public Health.
Some of that money is allocated towards the testing of all pregnant women. In 2011, “133,000 children were born and we conducted 240,000 HIV tests. We do this in the first and third trimesters of pregnancy to also detect those who become infected later.”
Dr. Lantero told me that last year, 100 of the 143 pregnant women were aware of carrying the virus and decided to have a child anyway. The rest were women who didn’t know or who contracted the infection during pregnancy.
The latter case occurred with Laura Clavel, 27, who was diagnosed with HIV at 32 weeks into her pregnancy. “The first thing I asked for was an abortion. I wasn’t prepared for something like that. It was heartbreaking – it was like dying,” recalled the young woman.
However, the doctors thought that in her case an abortion could have been even more dangerous. “I had to run the risk,” she said, but “The happiest day of my life was when my child was born and I found out that she was healthy,” she said, visibly excited.
Now Laura has joined the team of Dr. Tania Massip as a health care promoter. They are the ones who work out in the field, dedicating themselves to social and preventive medical attention in cases involving HIV/AIDS in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality in the capital.
Her prevention work is such that they have come to study “HIV-positive women of childbearing age and inform them when their viral levels are undetectable, with high T cell counts, and therefore at a good point to get pregnant if they wish to.”
Still, Dr. Tania explains: “The final decision is always the woman’s. We try to support her even when she acts contrary to our recommendations.” In fact, the reason that one child was born with HIV in 2011 was that its mother didn’t follow the protocol of the Public Health Ministry.
The results speak for themselves. Dr. Lantero told me that since 1986, only 38 children were diagnosed with having been born with HIV. She patiently explained that this is part of a much broader strategy.
She gave details about how 95 percent of Cuban women turn to a doctor for their pregnancy to be diagnosed, which allow early detection. From that moment they receive care and over 99 percent give birth in hospitals.
Since 1987, all pregnant women have been tested for HIV. All HIV/AIDS sufferers — more than 6,000 people — receive free anti-retroviral treatment using generic medications produced in Cuba as well as imported ones.
“Sometimes we run into problems obtaining the medications that come from abroad due to the United States embargo,” explained Dr. Lantero. Last year Washington “seized the funds awarded to Cuba by the United Nations Global Fund to Fight AIDS,” she added.
Despite that, the program continued and in mid-March there will be a new miracle: Ivon’s daughter will be born – healthy and loved. “Everyone calls me and I feel well cared for. But above all, I’m very happy with my little black girl.”
(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.