Can Breastfeeding Shield Infants from HIV?

by Garreth Myers


Breast milk contains a complex mix of nutrients that are tailor made for a baby's development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and several other health organizations, breast milk is the perfect food for babies comparable to no other commercially produced formula. In fact, the World Health Organization has long since issued a sweeping order that mothers should breastfeed their children until the age of two to maximize the health benefits received. Thanks to the initiatives of La Leche League and the AAP, breastfeeding in the US crossed the 60 percent mark recently.

However these statistics soon took a drastic turn downwards with the AIDS epidemic. Lines that were once irreversibly drawn between UNICEF and other agencies against formula manufacturers around the world began to blur confusingly. There is now a new aggressive movement to stop HIV positive mothers from breastfeeding their children in a bid to combat AIDS. A large part of the global HIV-prevention community believes that breastfeeding can increase the risk of AIDS and that breast milk contains HIV. In view of this, they encourage mothers with HIV to bottle-feed their infants rather than breastfeed.

Experts in the field are divided on this issue. Many insist that there is no conclusive proof that HIV exists in breast milk. According to them, the few studies that do indicate the presence of HIV in breast milk are seldom found in infectious levels. While there may be a few reported cases of HIV transmission through breast milk, there has not yet been any direct link proven between the two. Besides, in cases of babies with HIV, no scientific evidence is available on whether the transmission occurred during the prenatal stage, in-utero, post childbirth or through breast milk.

When breast milk is considered the best way to improve a baby's immunity and infection fighting power, doctors question the decision to advise against breastfeeding as a means to control AIDS - a powerful autoimmune disease. This reasoning seems to defy all logic. Additionally, there is irrefutable proof that formula-fed babies are more prone to illnesses and infections than their breastfed counterparts. Worldwide, there are more deaths from diarrhea and dehydration caused by formula feeding than of AIDS.

The breastfeeding support organization La Leche League (LLL) is pulling out all the stops in an attempt to stop the prevention of HIV positive women from breastfeeding their children. While the organization does accept that there may be cause for concern, it still insists that breastfeeding offers a natural defense against illnesses and its benefits far outweigh the risks. In a recent statement, the LLL even went so far as to insinuate that breast milk might even slow down the progress of AIDS in babies who are HIV positive.

This last statement is especially provocative and requires further research and evidence before any conclusions are reached. However, initial studies do indicate a glimmer of hope. One such study conducted in Zaire showed that HIV positive mothers, who exclusively breastfed their children had a lower risk of infant mortality than those who were formula fed. Another study indicated the presence of certain substances in breast milk that may prevent the binding of an HIV protein to its host cell receptor (as happens in the initial stages of an HIV infection). While this may be encouraging news, there is still not enough scientific evidence to prove a direct link between breastfeeding and fighting the infection.

When it comes to breastfeeding as a shield against HIV and AIDS, there is still so much more to be discovered. Unresolved issues and complex factors remain unanswered such as, ‘can HIV really be transmitted through breast milk?', ‘Are there other factors such as malnutrition or premature birth that affect the mortality rate?', ‘Can breastfeeding improve the health of the mother and increase the chances of survival for the infant?' Until all these questions are answered satisfactorily, experts agree that there should be no rush to discourage or stop breastfeeding as a bid to control HIV and AIDS.

References:

  1. http://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2005/humphrey-breast-feeding.html
  2. http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/disease/hiv.htm

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