HIV POSITIVE MOTHERS ENCOURAGED TO BREASTFEED
By: Khumbuzile Mbuqe
The World Health Organisation (WHO) encourages women to breastfeed their newborn babies for as long as possible. Breastfeeding is strongly promoted by government and other international health agencies.
Breast feeding has been promoted mainly in developing countries. Research by the WHO has found that babies that are breastfed for an extended period of time have a better chance of surviving their first year when compared to newborns who are formula fed. Exclusive breastfeeding is promoted, especially since the more it is practised the more benefits can be seen.
A baby’s immune system is strengthened, and the baby is able to fight infectious diseases, ear infections, diarrhea and reduces the chances of getting allergies. This protection is especially more important in developing countries, like South Africa where chances of contracting infections are higher. Breastfeeding was found to also to reduce breast cancer and assist with birth spacing. The benefits are plenty.
For numerous years, the South African Department of Health has been educating and discouraging AIDS /HIV positive mothers against breastfeeding their babies for fear of transmitting the virus from mother to child, using the prevention of mother to child transmission programme (PMTCT). Along with this programme, the Health Department gave free formula milk to HIV positive mothers.
As it stands, KwaZulu-Natal has the highest number of HIV positive women in South Africa. HIV/Aids education needs to be a continuous process. As the unemployment rate is also one of the highest, the practise of breastfeeding is one that is worthwhile to encourage as breast milk is freely available and is presented to baby in its most hygienic form when fed to the baby directly from the breast. UKZN paediatrics Professor Anna Coutsoudis has on numerous occasions said, “The benefits of breastfeeding needed to be more aggressively marketed.”
It was in 1999 that South African based researchers found that HIV positive mothers who exclusively breastfed their babies for the first three months, lowered rates of transmission of HIV then those who mixed breastfeeding with other liquids. In 2010, the WHO confused health professionals when they revised its policies to support breastfeeding for HIV positive women.
Women who were found to be taking their ARV’s on a daily basis, their babies given Nevaripine – an antiretroviral given to babies born to HIV positive mothers- reduced the risk of transmission during breastfeeding to below two percent.
Research has also shown that babies born to HIV positive mothers who are mix fed are eleven times more likely to contract the virus then exclusively breastfed babies. Formula has been found to damage the intestine’s sensitive lining making it easy for the virus to infect babies.
The Department needs to do extensive outreach programmes to educate the public. An HIV positive mother who refused to be named said, “I would much rather feed my baby formula, it makes sense to me and it is what I was taught at clinic. I don’t see how the virus can be prevented from being passed on to my baby.”
The Health Department has its work cut out, as the importance of breastfeeding in HIV positive mother’s needs to be promoted and the benefits highlighted extensively. Many HIV positive mothers are still being educated by health professionals to avoid breastfeeding their newborn babies thus depriving them of the nutrition and protection offered by breast milk.
Coutsoudis said the KwaZulu-Natal Health Department had recently received a grant to promote breastfeeding in both HIV negative and positive mothers.