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Aids Wednesday, 25 August, 1999, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Babies risk HIV from breast milk
Breastfeeding offers health benefits, as well as the risk of infections
Up to 10% of children who are breastfed by HIV positive mothers could themselves become infected, according to US research.

The study will add to the controversy surrounding a London council's application to have a four-month-old child tested for HIV against her parents' wishes.

The parents argue that the child, who is being breastfed, is healthy.

But Camden Council says it is in her interests to have an HIV test so that she can get potentially life-saving treatment if she is positive.

The US study of 672 Malawian infants with HIV-positive mothers found that infants born without the virus carried a risk of up to 10.3% of contracting HIV after breastfeeding.

None of the mothers had been given anti-HIV drugs like AZT, known to cut the risk of mother-to-child transmission.

Early days

The researchers say the risk of contracting HIV appeared slightly higher in the early months after birth, but infection rates rose the longer a child was breastfed.

Forty-seven per cent of the infants became HIV positive over a 24-month period.

The researchers, led by Dr Paolo Miotto from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, say older mothers appeared less likely to pass on the virus.

They say: "Our data suggest that the risk of HIV infection is highest in the early months of breastfeeding, which should be considered in formulating breastfeeding policy recommendations."

HIV is passed from some mothers to their babies through breast milk
The three-year study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A spokesman for the National Aids Trust said: "We welcome this new research on breastfeeding - an area known to be a possible route for HIV transmission.

"We are very concerned to encourage mothers to look at all their options."

The Terrence Higgins Trust, a leading UK Aids charity, says HIV-positive women are advised not to breastfeed if there are safe alternatives because of the risk of mother-to-baby transmission.

About one in seven HIV-positive women may also transmit the virus to their children in the womb or through fluid exchanges at birth.

The risk is highest for women whose health deteriorates in the later stages of pregnancy.

However, some children born HIV-positive manage to shake off the virus soon after birth.

This is because they still have their mothers' antibodies until they are about 10 months old.

HIV testing

The government recently announced plans to offer all women attending ante-natal clinics an HIV test.

This is so they can receive treatment to reduce the risk of transmission, may ask for a Caesarian section which is thought to lower the danger and may avoid breast feeding.

The National Aids Trust says research shows that just 1% of all babies born to HIV-positive mothers go on to have the virus if these measures are adopted.

But the George House Trust, a Manchester-based HIV centre, questions the cost of testing children for HIV, given what they say is a limited risk.

It says there were only 50 confirmed cases of mother-to-baby transmission in the UK last year.

It says money would be better targeted at high risk populations, such as gay and African men.

Dr Paolo Miotti on mother-to-baby transmission of HIV
See also:

02 Jul 99 | Aids
08 Jul 99 | Aids
03 Sep 99 | Health
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