HIV-positive? Give birth to a healthy baby

Pregnant and HIV-positive? Here’s what you need to know to protect the health of your unborn child.

01 April 2015
by Carla Hüsselmann

If you’re HIV-positive and pregnant, don’t despair: many HIV-positive women give birth to healthy HIV-negative babies. This is because they opt to take antiretrovirals (ARVs) and employ other effective interventions for the prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT), explains HIV/AIDS researcher Dr Funeka Bango.

“Unfortunately mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV is the most common way that children become infected,” she says. “If HIV-positive mothers opt not to take antiretrovirals (ARVs), the likelihood of infecting their babies is 15 to 45 percent. However, taking ARVs and employing other effective interventions for PMTCT can reduce this risk to below one percent.”

The best thing that a mother can do to protect her unborn or breastfeeding baby is to follow a comprehensive approach to PMTCT, which includes the mother taking ARVs, ensuring her baby takes preventative medication for the first few weeks of life, and ensuring safe infant feeding.

Exclusive breastfeeding versus formula 

Breastfeeding is still advocated as the best method for infant feeding even for HIV-positive mothers, says Dr Bango.

“If an HIV-positive mother chooses to breastfeed, then she must exclusively breastfeed and not mixed feed. Exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant only receives breast milk. No other liquids or solids should be given to her baby, including water, with the exception of oral rehydration solution, vitamins or medicines,” she advises.

HIV-positive mothers’ breast milk contains HIV, which can be passed onto their babies. However, breast milk also contains HIV antibodies (and other essential nutrients for protection against childhood illnesses, such as gastroenteritis and respiratory infections), so this is why by taking ARVs and exclusively breastfeeding, your baby is less at risk of HIV infection from breast milk.

If baby formula and clean, boiled water are always available, formula feeding is the safest option as the risk of passing HIV onto your baby is zero percent. “However, in a resource-poor country like South Africa, most women are unable to afford formula, let alone prepare it with clean boiled water, store it in sterile containers, and refrigerate and use it within 24 hours," says Dr Bango.

"This is why exclusive breastfeeding is an effective way of managing MTCT currently among most South African women – and of course breast milk ensures baby receives essential nutrients that are not found in formula."

Dr Bango also offers the following crucial advice:

1. “It is vital for women of all ages to know their HIV status but I think it is most important for women of childbearing age to do regular HIV tests. It’s very unfortunate to find a woman who only finds out she is HIV-positive late in her pregnancy. All HIV-positive women of childbearing age are advised to seek medical attention as soon as they suspect pregnancy as the earlier the mother is started on antiretroviral treatment (ART), the less the risk of transmission.”

2. “It is essential for pregnant women to practice safe sex during pregnancy as they are still at risk of being infected. It is also important for those women who test negative at the beginning of their pregnancy to have a repeat test done in their third trimester, preferably between 34 and 36 weeks.

3. “For those women who already know they’re HIV-positive but are not yet on ART, the best practice is to start them on ART the same day they test positive for pregnancy.”

How Clicks Clinics can help you

Did you know Clicks offers HIV testing and counselling at their clinics? To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or book online at Clicks Clinics online

HIV home test kits are also available for purchase in-store.

Shop online at Clicks.co.za for condoms

Don't be caught unawares – rather stock up on condoms via the convenience of online shopping so that you can ensure you're practising safe sex at all times.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

Read More: HIV/AIDS Super Section