Sunday, November 20, 2011

I’m HIV+ : Can I Breastfeed?

The answer to this may depend more on where you live than how safe it is. 

In a recent podcast with How Positive Are You, Marian Tompson, a co-founder of La Leche League International, talks about her long-time search for answers to questions about breastfeeding and HIV.

Marian remembers back in 1997 when the World Health Organization (WHO) published its recommendation that HIV+ women should not breastfeed. Period.  Marian questioned the science behind these recommendations and began the online chat group, Another Look, to examine current research on HIV and breastfeeding. She invited doctors, nurses, and policy-makers from both sides of the issue to participate in the discussion “because I felt that we really needed to listen to each other.”  

I interviewed Marian while doing research for This Child of Mine in 2000.   Back then, one of her biggest concerns was that the lack of compelling evidence that breastfeeding while HIV+ was dangerous. In fact at least one study showed that among mothers who exclusively breastfed, there was no higher risk of HIV transmission than among mothers who formula fed

Someone must have been listening. In 2010, after a series of new studies that demonstrated strong evidence of positive health outcomes for breastfed HIV-exposed babies, WHO and UNAIDS reversed their earlier recommendations.  Now mothers are advised to exclusively breastfeed for six months in conjunction with antiretroviral treatment (ARV) for themselves and their babies.

The catch is that, in reality, this recommendation only applies to women living in resource-poor countries where formula feeding can be a death sentence because of the lack of access to clean water, and the long-term sustainability and cost of formula feeding. In most countries, while there are no laws prohibiting HIV+ mothers from breastfeeding, choosing to do so can result in a mother losing custody of her child. Marian refers to a recent study of mother-baby AIDS clinics in Chicago where nurses were asked in a questionnaire what to do if an HIV+ mother said she wanted to breastfeed. The unanimous response? Time to call the lawyers. 

In the podcast Marian talks about a few cases where this has happened, including the 1999 case of Kathleen Tyson, one of the mothers in This Child of Mine. In fact, Marian says that for a long time La Leche League counselors were afraid that supporting HIV+ mothers who wanted to breastfeed could land them in jail, and passed all calls of this nature on to Marian.  

She points out that even now, over ten years later, with new research and guidelines,  there are still very few resources for HIV+ moms who want to do something differently than they’re told. Many end up lying to their doctors, their neighbors, their friends -even going underground   to do so.

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1 comment:

  1. Clin Perinatol. 2010 Dec;37(4):807-24, ix-x.
    HIV-1 and breastfeeding: biology of transmission and advances in prevention.
    Bulterys M, Ellington S, Kourtis AP.

    Division of HIV/AIDS, Center for Global Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, GA 30333, USA.

    Breastfeeding accounts for about 40% of mother-to-child transmission of HIV-1 worldwide and carries an estimated risk of transmission of 0.9% per month after the first month of breastfeeding. It is recommended that HIV-1-infected women completely avoid breastfeeding in settings where safe feeding alternatives exist. However, as replacement feeding is not safely available in many parts of the world, and because breastfeeding provides optimal nutrition and protection against other infant infections, there is intense ongoing research to make breastfeeding safe for HIV-1-infected mothers in resource-limited settings. More research is needed to determine the optimal duration of breastfeeding, optimal weaning practices, and which individual antiretroviral prophylactic regimen is best for HIV-1-infected mothers and their infants in a particular setting.