Every year, around 27 million women get pregnant in India! Each pregnant woman needs to be tested for the haemoglobin levels, hepatitis C infection, VDRL/RPR test for syphilis and HIV infection.
All these tests are important because any abnormality in any of these tests can affect the newborn child and its normal growth and development.
If these abnormalities are detected early enough, then the mother or child can be treated in time and the life-threatening consequences can be prevented.
The HIV test in the mother is a very important test because if the mother is HIV positive and pregnant, she can pass on the HIV infection to her newborn during the pregnancy itself, during labour and delivery, or during breastfeeding.
If a baby gets infected with HIV, then the baby remains HIV infected for life and may present to the doctor with failure to thrive, stunting of growth, recurrent illnesses, etc.
The baby's life then becomes one of recurrent visits to the hospital, recurrent admissions, constant medication, and this may sometimes even result in death.
However, if the mother is tested early in pregnancy for HIV infection and found to be HIV positive, then she can be started on antiviral medication and this needs to be continued throughout her pregnancy, labour and breastfeeding period, and also throughout her life.
Such medication for the mother during the pregnancy will help to prevent the baby from acquiring the infection and the baby will then be HIV negative and can look forward to a normal healthy life.
Since we want the mother to be there for the baby for as long as possible, we advise the mother to continue with the antiviral medication even after the pregnancy also and life-long, so that she can be healthy and look after her baby well.
The HIV test needs to be done for the mother with her consent and along with the other tests explained above.
If the HIV test is positive, then the full implications of this test needs to be explained to the mother by the doctor and counsellor, and the husband and other children in that family also need to be tested subsequently.
In our own cohort at the ASHA Foundation, the risk of transmission of HIV infection from mother to a child has been brought down from 30% to less than 2%.
Antiviral medication for HIV infection has made a world of difference in the lives of people living with HIV (PLHIV).
Not only does it prevent the risk of transmission from the mother to child or mother/father to spouse, it has also resulted in transforming HIV infection from a fatal life-threatening illness to a chronic, manageable illness; and PLHIV can look forward to years of good health and make a positive contribution to the society.
MBBS, M.D. Internal Medicine, from CMCH,Vellore Internal Medicine
She is the Founder Director of the ASHA Foundation, Bangalore, an NGO that provides a range of services in the field of HIV/AIDS.