Alberta Reappraising AIDS Society

David Crowe, President
Phone: +1-403-289-6609
Fax: +1-403-289-6658

Kathleen Newell, Treasurer
Box 61037, Kensington Postal Outlet
Calgary, Alberta T2N 4S6
Phone: +1-403-220-0129

Breastfeeding and HIV and AIDS

Journal of Human Lactation
August, 2002

The paper by de Paoli et al is a valuable addition to the study of breastfeeding in a climate of fear of HIV and AIDS. It increases our understanding of breastfeeding patterns in East, Central, and Southern Africa. It recognizes the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, and the need for a strict definition of this practice. We endorse their recommendation for intensive efforts to promote exclusive breastfeeding by educating health workers and mothers. Working to encourage and support exclusive breastfeeding has the potential to have a positive impact on families because it can be promoted for all women. It also maximizes resource use and it stigmatizes no one.

Readers of this paper may assume that although exclusive breastfeeding is an ideal goal, it is not achievable in practice, and that therefore formula feeding, ranked equal in HIV transmission risk to exclusive breastfeeding by Coutsoudis et al [1], might be preferable to the mixed feeding that would otherwise occur. While there are challenges to instituting widespread exclusive breastfeeding, too little attention has been paid to the fact that there are even greater constraints in achieving exclusive formula feeding in populations where this has rarely been practiced before.

Nearly all research on breastfeeding by HIV-positive mothers has used HIV-infection as the major or only end-point. A more meaningful end-point would be to compare death rates or rates of serious health problems in groups with well-defined feeding practices. The oft-quoted work of Nduati et al [2] was unable to find any difference in death rates between breastfed and formula fed babies by two years. It has been pointed out that feeding practices were defined so broadly that both groups contained a large percentage of mixed feeders [3].

In a recent European study [4] 22% of HIV-infected children had progressed to AIDS or death by 10 years, considerably lower than the rates of progression often seen in adults [5]. Even if the rate of HIV transmission in breastfed babies may truly be higher than in formula fed babies, there is still no evidence that overall health outcomes are better in formula fed infants than in breastfed infants born to HIV-positive mothers.

Should breastfeeding be presumed guilty or innocent? Since the negative health consequences of formula feeding are well documented for all mothers, and the negative health consequences of breastfeeding by HIV-positive mothers are not, we recommend a presumption of innocence.

For AnotherLook:

Andrea Eastman, MA, IBCLC, Chairman, AnotherLook USA
Marian Tompson Executive Director, AnotherLook USA
David Crowe, HBSc Canada
Carol Brussel, BA, IBCLC USA
Judy LeVan Fram, PT, IBCLC USA
Ted Greiner, PhD Sweden
Jay Hathaway, AAHCC USA
Valerie W. McClain, IBCLC USA
Pamela Morrison, IBCLC Zimbabwe
Magda Sachs, BA, MA United Kingdom
Francoise Railhet France


  1. Coutsoudis A et al. Method of feeding and transmission of HIV-1 from mothers to children by 15 months of age: prospective cohort study from Durban, South Africa. AIDS. 2001 Feb 16; 15(3): 379-87.
  2. Nduati R et al. Effect of breastfeeding and formula feeding on transmission of HIV-1; a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2000 Mar 1; 283: 1167-74.
  3. Tompson M et al. Nduati's claim that breastfeeding HIV-positive mothers have higher mortality may be unwarranted. Lancet. 2001 Sept 29; 358(9287): 1095. [correction appeared 2001 Dec 15; 358(9298)]
  4. European Collaborative Study. Level and pattern of HIV-1-RNA viral load over age: differences between girls and boys? AIDS. 2001 Jan 4; 16(1): 97-104.
  5. Muñoz A et al. The incubation period of AIDS. AIDS. 1997; Vol 11 (suppl A): S69-76.

© Copyright 2007 – Jean Umber and the Alberta Reappraising AIDS Society