Written by Sam Wolf and Thomas Landry

Most HIV-positive babies get the virus from breast milk. However, not all mothers with HIV-infected breast milk pass on the virus. Paradox?

In developing countries, child malnutrition can be more problematic than child hunger. The best solution is to cultivate healthy children as soon as possible - this means providing ample nutrients to the child, primarily through breastfeeding. Unfortunately, this can be difficult for HIV-positive mothers. The HIV/AIDS virus can be spread through breast milk, which discourages HIV-positive mothers from breastfeeding their children. As a result, infants in HIV-prevalent countries rarely receive the nutrition they need to develop.

A common solution is to provide infants with formula milk. Formula milk is completely safe, and can offer nearly the same nutrients as breastmilk. Unfortunately, this also poses problems in developing nations. The water used to create formula milk could be contaminated, trading one virus for another in infants. Or, mothers will dilute the formula to save money, limiting the amount of nutrients given to their child and promoting stunted growth.

The WHO recently recommended that HIV-positive mothers stay away from breast milk if they can “afford, prepare and store formula milk safely.” If not, then new studies show that the risks of HIV-positive breastfeeding outweigh the risks of dangerous alternative methods. Specifically, the research suggests that regular breastfeeding combined with antiretroviral treatment for the first 12 months can significantly reduce the chances of HIV transmission from mother to child. Discoveries show that HIV-infected breastmilk actually contains proteins against the virus to protect the child.

For all mothers, studies show that exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months can significantly reduce the risk of early child malnutrition and growth disorders. As the WHO continues to study the issue, they must face many complex issues. One is the widely held belief that formula milk is somehow more nutritional than natural breast milk. Another is the fact that after returning to work, mothers find difficulty continuing to breastfeed. The UNHRC is currently working to reduce these stigmas and encourage healthy infant development.