Claims made in a recent newspaper report regarding the risk of HIV transmission through breastfeeding have been challenged by leading figures in the University of Natal’€™s Department of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Professor Anna Coutsoudis, who has conducted extensive research into the pros and cons of breastfeeding, said the report “Free treatment for HIV+ mums” in the Mail & Guardian of January 26-February 1, 2001 misrepresented the risks involved in breastfeeding.

In a letter sent to Health-e, Coovadia and Coutsoudis said it was simply not true that 30% of children born to HIV infected mothers acquired HIV through breastmilk. In fact, if breastfeeding was limited to six months, the number of children infected might be as low as 4-6%.

They added that the implication that HIV positive mothers should avoid breastfeeding at all costs is not only a false, but also a dangerous one, because the use of formula feeds may be a much greater threat to a child’€™s life.

According to World Health Organisation data, children without a safe water supply are six times more likely to die from diarrhoea if they avoid breastmilk and take formula feed instead.

The Mail & Guardian article also falsely claims that only about half of South African women currently breastfeed, say Coovadia, Coutsoudis and colleagues. This may be true in urban areas like Soweto and Khayelitsha where formula feeding has been successfully promoted, but it is not true in most of Southern Africa, where more than 90% of mothers breastfeed.

Coutsoudis says that the Mail & Guardian article “is likely to create fear” because it falsely states that the government “will test all pregnant women for HIV”.

While free testing for HIV is now available as an option for increasing numbers of pregnant women, it is by no means compulsory, say the authors in their letter.

Choice and respect of basic human rights, says Coutsoudis, is a critical component of the government’€™s programme to reduce the impact of HIV.

“Inaccurate or biased information denies women the basic right to make an informed and free choice,” concludes the letter. ‘€“ Health-e News Service