During the first year of life, breastfeeding could protect infants exposed to HIV at birth from other infectious diseases, according to a study from the University of Washington School of Public Health, the University of Nairobi and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
[Photo: Dr. Kristjana Ásbjörnsdóttir]
The study, published in the August 2016 edition of the Journal of Human Lactation, found that breastfeeding decreased a child’s risk of being hospitalized due to infectious disease by 61 percent.
About 1.5 million women infected with HIV give birth in developing countries every year. Although prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is becoming more successful, in Kenya 15 percent of infants born to mothers with HIV will become infected.
“Infants in resource-limited settings who are HIV-exposed—that is, they are born to HIV-infected women but are uninfected at birth—are a vulnerable population with unique needs,” says lead author Dr. Kristjana Ásbjörnsdóttir, a research scientist in the School’s Department of Global Health and alumna of the Department of Epidemiology. “They’re at risk of acquiring HIV through breastfeeding and those who remain HIV-uninfected are at higher risk of other infectious morbidity and mortality compared to infants who are not HIV-exposed.”
Infant feeding recommendations for HIV-infected women “have attempted to balance the benefits of breastfeeding against the risks for years,” Dr. Ásbjörnsdóttir adds.
Using data from a previous cohort of HIV-infected mothers and their infants, the researchers identified 388 babies in Nairobi who were confirmed to be HIV-uninfected at birth. The babies were examined within 48 hours of delivery, at two weeks old, and then monthly until they were a year old.
Among the babies studied, 113 hospitalizations were reported, and nearly 80 percent were caused by one or more infectious diseases—primarily pneumonia, gastroenteritis and sepsis. Co-authors were Dr. Jennifer Slyker, assistant professor of global health and adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology, and Dr. Grace John-Stewart, professor of epidemiology and global health, and long-term University of Washington collaborators at the University of Nairobi and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.