Pregnancy and HIV

Mother to Child Transmission

A pregnant woman with HIV can pass on the virus to her baby in a variety of ways – although there are drugs and medical intervention available that make the likelihood of this happening very small.

Known as “mother to child transmission” (or MTCT), HIV can be transmitted through the blood stream during pregnancy, through the blood or vaginal secretions during childbirth and after birth through breast milk.

In very well resourced Western countries the rate of MTCT can be as low as 2%. However, in many African countries where healthcare is inadequate and antiretroviral drugs aren’t available, the figures rise as high as 45%.

So if a person is lucky enough to live in a country with good healthcare, a woman can reduce the risk of passing on the virus to her child by taking every intervention available.

Mother to child transmission intervention

This includes:

- taking antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy, although these should be avoided during the first three months while the baby is forming as there is no real information on how they may affect a developing foetus

- taking antiretroviral drugs during labour

- keeping the labour short

- having a caesarean section to avoid vaginal secretions

- taking antiretrovirals (both mother and child) for a short time after the birth

- using formula milk and not breastfeeding

In many developing countries antiretrovirals still aren’t widely available to pregnant women and the likelihood of having a doctor around to perform a caesarean is very low.

In many African nations there’s a stigma attached to feeding a baby powdered milk. Water supplies are often highly contaminated so the child is at more danger from water borne illnesses than HIV in the initial stages. In such circumstances breast feeding is the only real option.

Pregnancy itself is no more dangerous for an HIV positive woman than for a woman without the virus. She’s likely to suffer the same morning sickness, discomfort and various health problems as any other pregnant woman. And the development of the baby is no different.

Some women find out they are pregnant while already on HIV treatment. They may have to change their drugs if they’re known to have an adverse affect on the foetus. But it’s never a good idea to stop treatment without taking medical advice as this could aggravate the disease.

All babies born to HIV mothers will test positive for the virus. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean the baby is HIV positive; it just carries the mother’s HIV antibodies in its blood.

Infected babies will continue to make their own antibodies and continue to test positive. If they are not infected the mother’s antibodies will disappear and the baby will test negative within 12 months.

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