Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

New WHO recommendations on infant feeding in the context of HIV

30 November 2009

On 30 November, the eve of World AIDS Day, the WHO released new recommendations on treatment, prevention and infant feeding in the context of HIV, based on the latest scientific evidence.

The new recommendations call for earlier initiation of antiretroviral therapy (ART) for adults and adolescents, the delivery of more patient-friendly antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), and prolonged use of ARVs to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. And, for the first time, WHO recommends that HIV-positive mothers or their infants take ARVs while breastfeeding to prevent transmission.

In the previous revision in 2006, WHO recommended that ARVs be provided to HIV-positive pregnant women in the third trimester (beginning at 28 weeks) to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. At the time, there was insufficient evidence on the protective effect of ARVs during breastfeeding. Since then, several clinical trials have shown the efficacy of ARVs in preventing transmission to the infant while breastfeeding. The 2009 recommendations promote the use of ARVs earlier in pregnancy, starting at 14 weeks and continuing through the end of the breastfeeding period.

WHO also now recommends that breastfeeding continue until the infant is 12 months of age, provided the HIV-positive mother or baby is taking ARVs during that period. This will reduce the risk of HIV transmission and improve the infant's chance of survival.

"In the new recommendations, we are sending a clear message that breastfeeding is a good option for every baby, even those with HIV-positive mothers, when they have access to ARVs," said Daisy Mafubelu, WHO's Assistant Director General for Family and Community Health.

National health authorities are encouraged by WHO to identify the most appropriate infant feeding practice (either breastfeeding with ARVs or the use of infant formula) for their communities. The selected practice should then be promoted as the single standard of care.

The new PMTCT recommendations have the potential to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission risk to 5% or lower. Combined with improved infant feeding practices, the recommendations can help to improve child survival.

The main challenge lies in increasing the availability of treatment in resource-limited countries. The expansion of ART and PMTCT services is currently hindered by weak infrastructure, limited human and financial resources, and poor integration of HIV-specific interventions within broader maternal and child health services.

Implemented at a wide scale, WHO's new recommendations will improve the health of people living with HIV, reduce the number of new HIV infections and save lives.

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