Thousands of pregnant women have been tested for HIV since Liberia introduced a programme to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmissions (PMTCT) eight months ago, according to the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP).
"The turnout of pregnant women at hospitals and clinics where we are doing this programme has been very impressive; records have shown that hundreds of women a month go through the test at each of the health centres," said Josephine Freeman, National Coordinator of the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission Programme, a unit of the NACP.
PMTCT services are now available at nine hospitals in six of Liberia's 15 counties: Nimba County, near the Guinean border, Grand Gedeh and Maryland counties near the Cote D'Ivoire border, and the coastal counties of Grand Bassa, Margibi and Montserrado.
Freeman said the government hoped to roll out the PMTCT programme to other hospitals and clinics, particularly in rural areas, with funding from the UN agency for children (UNICEF).
"By the end of this year, the plan is to gradually cover almost all of the counties," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "[It] is an important component in our fight against HIV/AIDS."
Liberia has no national HIV prevalence figure, but health workers estimate infection rates at between 5 percent and 10 percent.
Women who test HIV positive are given antiretroviral treatment to reduce the likelihood of passing the virus to their child. PMTCT services at Elwa Hospital, a public health facility in the capital, Monrovia, had so far prevented six infants from contracting the virus from their mothers, said Pate Chon, head of the hospital's HIV/AIDS Unit.
"We encourage pregnant women to test, and the response has been overwhelming. For last month [May] alone, about 120 women tested." She attributed the gradual increase since the programme had been introduced in November 2006 to awareness campaigns, and the success of midwives and nurses in encouraging pregnant women to be tested.
More nurses and midwives needed
Years of war caused most of the country's trained medical personnel to flee or seek better-paying jobs in the private sector. A Liberian health ministry report in 2006 said the distribution of trained health workers was also grossly imbalanced in favour of urban areas, while many health workers held sub-standard qualifications.
Liberia's 3.2 million population is served by just 169 doctors, 453 nurses and 1,000 midwives, about half of them based in Monrovia. The shortage of trained health personnel presents a challenge to scaling up the PMTCT programme.
"In order to successfully sustain this programme, we need to train additional nurses, midwives and traditional birth attendants to implement PMTCT," Freeman said.