Research shows that exclusive breast feeding can significantly reduce the risk of HIV being transmitted from mother to child in infants under age six months.
A study by scientists at the Africa Center for Health and Population Studies shows that HIV-positive mothers who breast feed their child for the first six months reduces the risk of transmission compared to those children that are also given solid foods or formula.
The research was published today in The Lancet and has implications for people in poor settings such as rural Africa.
The researchers tracked 1,372 HIV-infected women and found that a four percent risk of postnatal transmission of the virus to babies fed only by breast milk for their first six months of life.
Infants who were breast fed and also ate baby formula or animal milk were twice as likely to get HIV from the mother than those who only ate breast milk. Babies who also ate solid foods were nearly 11 times more likely to get infected, the study found.
The researchers cited a biological reason to explain the findings. They indicated that the mucous membrane within the intestines might act as a berrier to HIV infection, with the breast milk reinforcing the lining.
Babies who were exclusively breast fed had less than half the death rate by three months of age than those who received formula alone, according to the study.
Fifteen percent of babies with HIV infected mothers who did not breast feed them died by age three months. Only six percent of babies who were only breast fed died at age three months.
The study indicated that for women in poor areas with a high AIDS prevalence, the health benefits of breast milk outweigh the risk of passing on HIV through breast feeding their child.
“The question of whether or not to breastfeed is not a straightforward one,” says Professor Hoosen Coovadia from the Africa Centre. “We know that breastfeeding carries with it a risk of transmitting HIV infection from mother to child, but breastfeeding remains a key intervention to reduce mortality. In many areas of Africa where poverty is endemic, replacement feed, such as formula milk or animal milk, is expensive and cannot act as a complete substitute. The key is to find ways of making breastfeeding safe.”
The validity and importance of the study’s results have been bolstered by other recent studies in Africa which confirm the team’s conclusions about the reduced transmission of HIV due to exclusive breast feeding.