Background: HIV remains responsible for an estimated 40% of mortality in South African pregnant women and their children. To address these avoidable deaths, eligibility criteria for antiretroviral therapy (ART) in pregnant women were revised in 2010 to enhance ART coverage. With greater availability of HIV services in public health settings and increasing government attention to poor maternal-child health outcomes, this study used the patient's journey through the continuum of maternal and child care as a framework to track and document women's experiences of accessing ART and prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT) programmes in the Eastern Cape (three peri-urban facilities) and Gauteng provinces (one academic hospital).
Results: In-depth interviews identified considerable weaknesses within operational HIV service delivery. These manifested as missed opportunities for HIV testing in antenatal care due to shortages of test kits; insufficient staff assigned to HIV services; late payment of lay counsellors, with consequent absenteeism; and delayed transcription of CD4 cell count results into patient files (required for ART initiation). By contrast, individual factors undermining access encompassed psychosocial concerns, such as fear of a positive test result or a partner's reaction; and stigma. Data and information systems for monitoring in the three peri-urban facilities were markedly inadequate.
Conclusions: A single system- or individual-level delay reduced the likelihood of women accessing ART or PMTCT interventions. These delays, when concurrent, often signalled wholesale denial of prevention and treatment. There is great scope for health systems' reforms to address constraints and weaknesses within PMTCT and ART services in South Africa. Recommendations from this study include: ensuring autonomy over resources at lower levels; linking performance management to facility-wide human resources interventions; developing accountability systems; improving HIV services in labour wards; ensuring quality HIV and infant feeding counselling; and improved monitoring for performance management using robust systems for data collection and utilisation.