Strict breast milk diet reduces HIV transmission

HIV-positive mothers shouldn't mix breast milk and formula, say researchers.

Published March 30, 2007 8:43PM (EDT)

A new study suggests that solely breast-feeding a newborn for six months reduces the postnatal HIV transmission rate between mother and child, reports the BBC. The researchers behind the study say that breast may be best for mothers in developing countries (often without access to antiretroviral treatment or a strict formula diet). It might seem to contradict the World Health Organization's advice that whenever possible HIV-positive mothers use formula instead.

But here's what needs to be clarified: The recent study, conducted by the Africa Center for Health and Population Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, compared solely breast-fed babies with those who received a combination of breast milk and formula or solid foods. In other words: The study did not find that breast-feeding is preferable to a strict formula diet -- which has helped to greatly reduce HIV transmission rates in developed countries.

Babies given formula or animal milk in addition to breast milk were twice as likely to contract the virus as breast-milk-only babies. Likewise, babies fed solid foods in addition to breast milk were nearly 11 times more likely to become infected. The researchers' thinking is that solid food may cause "damage to the lining of the stomach, allowing the virus to pass through the gut wall," according to the BBC.

The impetus for the study seems to have been a reality-based view of the resources available to mothers in third-world countries: A strict formula diet often isn't an option for these women. "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."

In this light, the recommendation makes complete sense and, in fact, doesn't at all contradict WHO's promotion of formula feeding: The organization simply says that an HIV-positive mother should provide her baby with a formula-only diet if she can, thereby eliminating the risk of the virus being transmitted through breast milk. The take-away: When possible, HIV-positive mothers should give their babies a formula-only diet. Otherwise, they should rely solely on breast-feeding. Just don't mix the two!

Talk about rendering the breast-feeding battles in the U.S. totally frivolous.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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