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'HIV mothers can breastfeed their babies'

by Staff reporter
08 Aug 2022 at 05:48hrs | Views
FAITH Karuru (not her real name) was infected with HIV by her boyfriend, who fled to South Africa after committing a crime seven years ago.

"I discovered I was HIV positive when I went to register the pregnancy at a local clinic. I was terrified and confused," she said.

"I asked the nurses where I could get an abortion and they said my status was not a death sentence."

The nurses told her that she could have a healthy baby, free of the virus.

"When my baby was born, she was so tiny and looked so fragile that I thought the nurses had lied to me. When I breastfed her, it was extremely painful and I was afraid that I would lose my child," Karuru said.

The source of her trepidation was misinformation and myths spread by friends regarding breastfeeding by HIV-positive mothers and this almost ended Karuru's and her baby's lives.

"My friends told me that the breast milk of an HIV-positive person, just like blood, was full of the deadly virus. I was so confused and scared I even tried to kill myself and my baby to save her from the horror of living with HIV.

"By the grace of God, we both survived the pesticide I put on a banana that we shared. I was taken for counselling, but I had a hard time believing my baby would not get HIV from my milk," she explained.

"Breastfeeding my baby felt like taking a knife and slitting her throat. I felt extremely guilty afterwards because I loved my baby. I could not sleep and my mother could not understand why I was reluctant to let my baby suckle.

"My friends, who sounded like they knew what they were talking about, kept telling me how HIV \-positive mothers killed their babies by infecting them with the virus through breast milk," Karuru added.

She was relieved after getting counsel from Unicef Zimbabwe and the National Aids Council (Nac), who advised her that mothers who are under antiretroviral therapy (ART) could not spread HIV through breastfeeding.

"I was slowly losing my mind when I finally confided in my aunt, who is an HIV counsellor. Her calmness reassured me and we had a lengthy talk about my condition. She gave me literature from Unicef that clearly explained that pain during the first weeks of breastfeeding was entirely normal and my baby would not get infected as long as I took my ARVs," she recalled.

"Today, my baby is six years old and is in Grade 1. She is so healthy, robust and full of life that I always shed tears when I think I tried to kill her because of misinformation about HIV and breastfeeding. I breastfed her for almost two years and she is HIV negative."

Unicef Zimbabwe nutrition manager Mara Nyawo said HIV-positive mothers who are fully supported for ART adherence could successfully breastfeed.

"Yes, HIV-positive mothers can successfully breastfeed while being supported fully for ART adherence throughout the time they breastfeed," she said.

"HIV-positive mothers should exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life and continue breastfeeding for up to 24 months, introducing complementary foods at six months of age," Nyawo said, pointing out that breast milk is important because it contains antibodies and acts as a baby's first vaccine, providing critical protection from diseases and death.

"Breastfeeding provides children the best start in life. It is a baby's best source of nutrition, bolstering brain development with lifelong benefits for a baby. It provides the ideal nutrition for babies, containing everything that babies need to grow and develop well," she said, further noting that 50% of diarrhoea episodes and a third of respiratory infections can be avoided if mothers exclusively breast feed their children.

"Infants, who are not fully or partially breastfed have a higher risk of diarrhoea and are more likely to die particularly in low-income countries. If mothers were supported to breastfeed, nearly 50% of diarrhoea episodes and a third of respiratory infections would be avoided," she added.

Unicef says breastfeeding provides mothers with long-term protection against breast and ovarian cancer, and reduces the mothers' risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mothers living with HIV need to take antiretroviral treatment correctly during pregnancy and breastfeeding to eliminate the risk of passing on the virus to the baby.

WHO further indicates that it is also important that expecting mothers register for antenatal care early, that is within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Currently, Zimbabwe has recorded a decline in breastfeeding due to aggressive marketing of milk substitutes by multinational baby formula manufacturers.

Health ministry national nutritionist Chj Chikanda pointed out that the Zimbabwe's breastfeeding rate has decreased from 83% in 2021 to 61% in 2022.

According to health experts, formula-fed babies may have a greater risk of respiratory infections, allergies, sudden infant death syndrome, obesity, cognitive development issues and other health risks, compared to breastfed babies.

Source - NewsDay Zimbabwe