As we celebrate Mother’s Day today, we honor the women in our lives and around the globe who are mothers, grandmothers, and those who serve important maternal roles. Today and every day, we are grateful for the women whose strength and resilience keep our families and communities together.
It is also an opportunity to reflect on the many health challenges mothers face around the world – challenges that in too many low- and middle-income countries make it difficult for women to preserve their own health, safely give birth to healthy babies or ensure their child lives beyond their fifth birthday.
Today, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death and disease in women of reproductive age in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 60 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in the region are women. Around the world, more than 40 young women are newly infected with the virus every hour.
Childbirth takes the lives of 289,000 women each year, robbing them and their child of what should be one of the most joyous moments in their lives. Across sub-Saharan Africa, a woman’s risk of dying from childbirth is more than 47 times greater than in the United States.
While the statistics are alarming, the U.S. Government, in close partnership with the people and Government of Botswana, is working to secure a better future for mothers, mothers-to-be, and newborns.
One mother who deserves particular recognition today is Balekanye Mosweu, a Francistown woman who discovered in 2006 that she was both HIV positive and pregnant with twins. She immediately enrolled in the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) program and was one of the first women in the country to benefit from Early Infant Testing so she could find out the status of her newborns in weeks instead of months. Her twins – Thata and Thatayaone, who are now 9 years old, healthy and HIV-negative – represent the promise of an AIDS-free generation.
My government’s global AIDS program, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), has recognized Balekanye as a PEPFAR Hero for her bravery and openness in disclosing her status in an effort to educate her friends and community about the PMTCT program’s successes. Like any other mother, Balekanye has big dreams for her children and she took the right steps to ensure a healthy start for them. She represents the thousands of women throughout the country who have successfully taken advantage of the life-saving PMTCT program and who deserve to be honored today and every day.
Since 2004, PEPFAR has supported Botswana’s PMTCT program through financial and technical assistance. To date, the program has been heralded as one of Africa’s best examples of how a developing country can save babies from acquiring HIV. The rate of HIV infection among infants in Botswana has dropped from a high of 40 percent approximately 10 years ago to around 2 percent in 2015 – an amazing accomplishment. Globally, over the last decade, more than one million babies have been born HIV-free to HIV-positive mothers thanks to PEPFAR-supported programs.
Another big boost for mothers in Botswana has been the shift to Option B+, a program to provide lifelong anti-retroviral treatment to HIV-positive pregnant women, regardless of their CD4 count (which is the white blood cell count typically used to determine when treatment should be initiated). This program helps prevent infant infections, saves mothers’ lives, reduces the numbers of orphans, and is cost-effective. Treatment also helps protect against sexual transmission of HIV to uninfected male partners. The Botswana Ministry of Health adopted Option B+ in 2014, and PEPFAR is proudly supporting its rollout through technical assistance and funding.
I was happy to read in the newspapers last week that Botswana has recorded a significant reduction of both the under-five mortality rate and the maternal mortality rate. The Ministry of Health is working tirelessly to equip health workers with the skills they need to help mothers safely deliver healthy babies. There are still many challenges to confront, but the news on progress is welcome.
This year, let us honor the mothers in our lives with a renewed commitment to ensure they can safely give birth to healthy children, with every prospect of leading long, healthy lives.
Achieving an AIDS-free generation and ending preventable maternal and child death are ambitious but achievable goals, in Botswana and around the world. With a clear path for action, we can deliver on this fundamental human aspiration and help improve the lives of mothers everywhere.
*Ambassador Earl R. Miller is the U.S. Ambassador to Botswana.