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Breastfeeding and HIV

What Are The Risks?

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Updated June 18, 2014

In many parts of the world, breastfeeding is the only source of nutrition for newborns and babies. Under normal circumstances this would not be a problem. But breastfeeding and HIV does offer considerable risk to newborns. In fact, the risk of breastfeeding and HIV can be as high as 1 in 4 HIV infections if a baby is breastfed by an HIV+ mother.

The Risk of HIV Infection

There are risks to breastfeeding from other illnesses too. It has been generally accepted that breastfeeding a newborn is extremely beneficial for the baby as well as for the mother. But there are circumstances which cast a shadow of doubt on that premise. Do certain medical conditions make breastfeeding a health risk? Specifically, does HIV, Hepatitis B and C, or herpes pose a risk during breastfeeding? Let's take a look at each.

The Facts About Hepatitis

The Facts About Herpes

Breastfeeding and HIV

Can An HIV+ Mom Infect Her Baby While Breastfeeding?
Absolutely she can! In fact, breastfeeding carries an extremely high risk of HIV transmission; upwards of 25% in fact. About one-third of all HIV positive children throughout the world have been infected through breastfeeding.

Can an HIV+ Mother Reduce the Risk of HIV Infection While Breastfeeding?
There are ways to reduce the risk of transmission during breastfeeding but those methods are NOT effective enough to recommend breastfeeding for HIV infected women in all circumstances. In fact, experts agree that breastfeeding should be avoided if the mother is HIV+ and there are other means of feeding her child (commercial formula) available. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world breastfeeding is the only option. A lack of financial resources and/or clean water makes breastfeeding the only choice for many of the world's mothers.

Statistics - HIV Transmission From Mother to Child - How Common Is It?

Preventing HIV Infection From Mother to Child

How Can HIV+ Mothers Decide How to Feed Their Babies?
Unfortunately, financial and cultural factors often dictate which method of feeding is used. Mothers need counseling and support from trained and sensitive health workers. The unfortunate truth is that mothers who know that they are HIV positive but cannot obtain or afford sufficient substitute milk will probably decide to breastfeed their babies. Mothers who can provide an adequate safe alternative such as commercial formula will probably decide not to breastfeed. Regardless of the decision, the HIV positive mother needs to be educated as to the risks and benefits of breastfeeding. She should be counseled as to any resources that may be available that would allow her to choose not to breastfeed, thus decreasing the risk of mother to child HIV transmission.

Breastfeeding and Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C transmission via blood transfusion or through needle-sharing among drug-users, is well documented. However, sexual and perinatal transmission (breastfeeding) may also occur, although less frequently than transmission through contact with infected blood. Other modes of transmission such as those linked to social, cultural and behavioral practices using percutaneous procedures (e.g. ear and body piercing, circumcision, tattooing) may be important in some cultures and parts of the world.

Hepatitis C Fact Sheet

Although the risk of perinatal transmission may increase when the mother is co-infected with HIV, further study is required to quantify this risk. In over 40% of cases the Hepatitis C risk factors cannot be identified. In some studies, the careful assessment of past exposure to percutaneous intervention with inadequately sterilized material has reduced the number of cases with unidentified risk factors to about 10%.

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