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HIV and Infant Feeding

The Facts

Cambodia. Two women review a brochure on AIDS awareness and prevention they were just given by health workers from the provincial hospital, part of the Provincial AIDS Secretariat. The Secretariat receives training and other support from UNICEF for AIDS awareness and care activities.

Without preventive interventions, approximately one-third of infants born to HIV-positive mothers contract HIV through mother-to-child transmission, becoming infected during their mothers' pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. In 2001, 800,000 children under the age of 15 contracted HIV, over 90 per cent of them through mother-to-child transmission of HIV (MTCT). Between 15 and 25% of children born to HIV-infected mothers get infected with HIV during pregnancy or delivery, while about 15% of the children get infected through breastfeeding.


Issues at a glance

Breastfeeding saves lives

The Response: Key Principles and Strategies

WHO/UNAIDS/UNICEF infant feeding guidelines

UNICEF's Response

Factors that may decrease the risk of HIV transmission through breastfeeding include:

Shorter duration of breastfeeding. The longer a child is breastfed by an HIV-positive mother the higher the risk of HIV infection. Breastfeeding for 6 months has about one third of the risk of breastfeeding for 2 years.

Exclusive breastfeeding in the early months. Some immunological studies are finding that there are factors in human milk, especially the milk of the the HIV-infected mother, that will directly combat the cells that contribute to the transmission of the HIV infection. A study done in Durban, South Africa showed that exclusive breastfeeding during the first 3 months of life resulted in a lower risk of MTCT than mixed feeding (breastfeeding combined with other foods, juices or water)

Prevention and treatment of breast problems. Mastitis and cracked nipples and other causes of breast inflammation are associated with an increased risk of HIV-transmission.

Prevention of HIV-infection during breastfeeding. The maternal viral load is higher shortly after a new infection resulting in an increased risk of infection of the child.

Early treatment of sores or thrush in the mouth of the infant. Sores in the infant's mouth make it easier for the virus to enter the infant's body.

The risk of HIV-infection has to be compared with the risk of morbidity and mortality due to not breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is protective against death from diarrhoea, respiratory and other infections, particularly in the first months of life. Breastfeeding also provides the necessary nutritional and related ingredients, as well as the stimulation necessary for good psychosocial and neurological development, and contributes to birth spacing.

Breastfeeding saves lives >>>