LOS ANGELES - A study has showed that breast feeding might be the best option for HIV-positive mothers in developing countries, though they risk infecting their babies.
Breast feeding helps to build a baby's immune system but HIV-positive mothers are counselled to feed their babies formula instead to limit the risk of HIV transmission. But this has caused problems in countries where there is a lack of clean water.
Hoosen Coovadia, a pediatrician, said at a conference on retroviruses and opportunistic infections in Los Angeles recently that instructing HIV-infected mothers in developing nations to breast-feed would result in about 300000 children becoming infected with HIV - but would save about 1,5million from dying of other diseases.
"Breast milk is a cornucopia of immune factors," Coovadia said.
"Breast feeding should be promoted, protected and preserved, despite the risk of HIV."
Coovadia suggested that HIV-positive women in countries with an infant mortality rate of 25percent or higher be urged to breast feed.
HIV-positive women are at risk of passing the virus to their infants during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding.
Without intervention, 20percent to 45percent of babies would contract the virus that causes Aids from their mother, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
"It is a dilemma for HIV-positive women," said Peggy Henderson, a scientist at the WHO's department of child and adolescent health. Henderson cited studies that showed that babies fed on formula were six times more likely to be killed by an infectious diseases than those exclusively breast fed.
Coovadia's four-year study found that 4percent of babies breast-fed exclusively contract HIV.
"If you have the resources to prepare hygienic milk - clean water, access to electricity and so on - then feed formula," said Coovadia.
"But if you don't have all that, then the need is for exclusive breast-feeding."
A study in Botswana, which Coovadia called "the most stable and democratic country in Africa," found that most of the more than 500 children who died during a flood-related outbreak of diarrhea last year were being fed formula.
The "very surprising" findings show that in some settings the risk of dying from other infectious disease offsets the risk from HIV, said Coovadia's coauthor Grace Aldrovandi, an associate professor at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.- Reuters