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Asylum policy 'risks spreading HIV'
Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding can transmit HIV
HIV positive refugee women could risk infecting their children because of the government's new policy on asylum seekers, according to Aids charities.

Under the new voucher system, which came into effect this month, asylum seekers are no longer entitled to benefits.

Instead they are given vouchers which they can exchange in shops for food and other basic necessities.

They are also entitled to 10 in cash.

Refugee organisations have complained that this puts asylum seekers below the poverty line as the vouchers are worth between 29 and 36 a week and, unlike income support, do not give the receiver any other entitlements, such as milk tokens.

Breastfeeding is one of the main routes for transmitting HIV.

According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, an HIV positive woman who breastfeeds her baby has at least a one in 10 chance of infecting her child - much higher than the risk of transmission for HIV positive people who have unprotected sex.


Vouchers are an inadequate way of helping people experiencing hardship and could be severely detrimental to their health

Gavin Hart, National Aids Trust

The government's Health Education Authority advises that women who have HIV should not breastfeed, but Aids agencies say that refugees will find it difficult to pay for formula milk - which costs over 5 a tin - out of their vouchers.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: "The new rules are meant to be a system of support for asylum seekers. They are largely voucher-based, but they do not take into account specific medical support."

She said the Department of Health could provide this, but a DoH spokeswoman stated that milk tokens could only be given to people on income support or other benefits.

Aids charities fear restricting HIV positive women's access to formula milk could have severe health implications.

The number of women with HIV has been rising in the UK in recent years and the National Aids Trust (NAT) says African people, particularly women, are the second highest at-risk group.

It says some 80% of women known to be infected and the majority of HIV positive children are African.

Gavin Hart, a spokesman for the charity, said it had submitted concerns to the government about the health implications of its new asylum policy.

He said: "We recommended that benefit entitlements be restored because we think that vouchers are an inadequate way of helping people experiencing hardship and could be severely detrimental to their health, especially if they are living with a condition like HIV."

Illogical policy

Blackliners, an HIV charity which deals with many asylum seekers, says it is "illogical" for the government to encourage women to be tested for HIV, give them drugs if they are positive and advise caesareans to cut the risk of transmission and then give no support for them to avoid breastfeeding.

"It is a waste of energy," said spokesman Yohannes Ligiam.

The charity says African women are being encouraged to take the HIV test to help limit mother-to-child transmission and that in some areas, due to health workers' inexperience, black women - regardless of where they come from - are being "pushed" into testing.

"This makes the figures look worse for black women," said Mr Ligiam.

He proposed that the government should give HIV positive women financial and emotional support to avoid breastfeeding their children and that this could be distributed through centres which test for the virus.

The NAT agreed and called for "urgent consideration" of the issue, calling it "a grave inconsistency in policy".

A spokesman for the Terrence Higgins Trust said it would have "the gravest of concerns if women who are HIV positive are unable to obtain formula milk and have to resort to breastfeeding for economic reasons".

See also:

03 Apr 00 | Scotland
03 Apr 00 | UK
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