When a woman has been diagnosed with HIV, the possibility of pregnancy is an important matter to discuss. International guidelines indicate that any person detected with HIV must start treatment immediately, with the aim of suppressing viral load. If a woman with HIV becomes pregnant, the treatment she receives will reduce the possibility of transmitting the virus to her baby to less than 5%. 

Antiretroviral treatment

However, with breastfeeding, history has been different. For many years, it was considered that women with HIV should not breastfeed their babies. This recommendation was based, in part, in the limited research that had been carried out on the real risk of transmission in breast milk, but also in the few amount of people (especially women) who received antiretroviral treatment. In some low-income contexts, like in the African continent, HIV treatment was only provided while the woman was pregnant and suspended once she gave birth. 

But currently antiretroviral coverage is broader and a very important discovery has been made, summarized in one principle: undetectable = untransmittable. This means that when a person with HIV is able to keep their viral load undetectable by correctly taking the treatment, possibilities of transmitting the virus to another person are practically zero.

This is a concept in which 23 doctors and activists from the United States and Canada based themselves and called at the beginning of this year to provide women with HIV the scientific and complete information, so they can make the best decisions on feeding their sons and daughters. 

Breastfeeding is healthy 

For the general population, it’s considered that breastfeeding is the healthiest form of feeding. With regards to women with HIV, it wasn’t until 2016 that the World Health Organization accepted breastfeeding as a first option for feeding in contexts in which poverty or lack of drinkable water made breast milk substitution difficult, therefore breastfeeding was considered to bring more benefits than risks for newborns. 

Nevertheless, currently, with an important progress in the number of people under antiretroviral treatment (67% according to 2019 figures), it’s important that women who so choose to, may consider the option to breastfeed their babies, considering that an undetectable viral load eliminates the risk of transmission. So, if your live with HIV and are pregnant or recently gave birth, you can start the conversation of this possibility with your medical team. 

At AHF we offer free counseling. If you have any questions on sexuality, HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infections or are pregnant and live with HIV, we offer professional free counseling, in a discrimination free environment. Make your appointment today.

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