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Infant AIDS Treatment Difficult

March 21, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A quick treatment that could cut in half the number of HIV-infected infants born in developing countries may be more difficult and expensive than initially suggested, say U.S. health officials.

First, doctors must diagnose the 2 million HIV-infected women who will get pregnant each year in developing countries _ nations that now have little testing for the AIDS virus, the officials say. Then, they must keep the healthy babies from being infected by breastfeeding,

The health officials are headed for an international AIDS meeting on Monday to hunt a solution.

Last month, scientists discovered that three to four weeks of AZT therapy during the end of pregnancy cut in half the number of infected babies born to HIV-infected mothers.

AZT maker Glaxo Wellcome reacted by slashing the drug’s price for developing countries, to $50 to $150 per woman. The 26-week AZT therapy given to U.S. women costs $800 to $1,000.

Still, ``there are some really major challenges in turning this into a reality for the hundreds of thousands of children who are infected every year,″ cautioned Dr. Nils Daulaire of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which spends $120 million on AIDS programs worldwide.

The U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS has called international experts to Geneva on Monday to plan how to get short AZT therapy to developing countries.

AIDS testing is largely unknown in these regions. USAID has begun HIV counseling and testing programs in 14 developing countries, at a cost of $25 per person. The question is how to find an estimated 2 million HIV-infected pregnant women each year at a more affordable price, Daulaire said Friday.

Then comes the AZT. Even at $50 to $150, that’s ``several times the amount normally spent on all prenatal obstetric care″ in developing countries, Daulaire said.

Finally, doctors must keep protecting the healthy infants: If their HIV-infected mothers breastfeed, one in six of the babies will catch the virus that way, he said.

Health experts for years have tried to increase breastfeeding in developing countries because mothers’ milk is such good nutrition. Given that, doctors must figure out how to curb nursing by HIV-infected mothers without harming that bigger message, he said.

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