New research suggests that breastfeeding may prevent HIV from passing from a mother’s milk to a baby and that some previous assumptions about HIV and breastfeeding are untrue.
For generations, it has been believed that mothers with HIV should not breastfeed their babies. It was considered commonsense that a mother would not put her child at risk of contracting the virus, and everyone knew that the virus could be passed through a mother’s breast milk. This is still believed by parents around the world, but research is starting to challenge these assumptions in interesting ways.
It all started with basic data collection and a few statistics. Scientists realized that less than 7% of babies with HIV contracted the virus through breastfeeding. That means more than 90% of babies who contract the virus pick it up for reasons that have nothing to do with their mother’s breast milk. This was enough for some researchers to turn to mice to start exploring the issue deeper.
They wanted to know if breastfeeding could really transmit HIV. They also threw out a powerful question: could breastfeeding actually protect babies from contracting the virus? This went against what has always been assumed, but it makes since considering all of the other diseases that breastfeeding has proven to help prevent.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina recently released the results of their study on mice which showed that breastfeeding could actually be a powerful block preventing the oral transmission of HIV from a mother to her baby. They found that the small particles of HIV found in a mother’s breast milk are different than the HIV particles which may be passed through other methods of contact, so they can have a preventative effect in the body of the baby. Plus, many breastfeeding mothers take antiviral drugs to protect their babies.
This research is not the final word on the subject, but it has stirred up quite a bit of discussion in the medical field. Not only are professionals discussing the possibilities of using breastfeeding to prevent babies from obtaining the virus, but they are discussing the possibilities of finding new methods of treatment for adults with the virus as well. This research has opened the door to new ideas that may prove those old assumptions about HIV and breastfeeding untrue.
What Is the Safest Way to Proceed?
It was once believed that breastfeeding was to be avoided at all costs by HIV-positive mothers, but what do you do now that this is being challenged? The answer ultimately depends on where you live and what resources are available to you.
If you live in the United States, Canada or another country where you have the resources to feed your baby with a bottle, then talk to your doctor about the safest way to go. While it is possible that breastfeeding could do more protecting than infecting, that has not been proven for sure at this time so you want to be cautious.
If you live in an area where bottle-feeding may be unsafe due to poor water quality or other factors, then you may not have much choice but to breastfeed at least part of the time because this is the safest option for your baby. Your best option is to take the antiviral drugs, if at all possible.
The Implications of the Study
The good news is that this may mean that many HIV positive mothers may not be limited to bottle-feeding their children. This is wonderful for moms who want to nurse and for those moms in areas of the world where water is not safe to drink and where breastfeeding can save thousands of lives each year.