Purpose of review: In developing countries where replacement feeding is generally not feasible or safe, hundreds of thousands of infants acquire HIV infection during breastfeeding. Data from recently completed studies provide insight into the safety and hazards of different feeding approaches as well as the use of antiretroviral therapy to prevent postnatal transmission.
Recent findings: Several studies confirm that the benefits of avoiding or shortening breastfeeding are offset by adverse outcomes in those infants who escape infection. Reductions in HIV transmission achieved with either formula feeding or early weaning are counterbalanced by increases in uninfected child mortality resulting in no net benefit for HIV-free survival. However, exclusive breastfeeding is associated with a significant decrease in HIV transmission risk. Antiretroviral treatment during breastfeeding to the mother or her infant appears to reduce the risk of postnatal transmission. Studies evaluating daily nevirapine to the breastfeeding infant suggest protection during the period of treatment. Similarly, infants born to breastfeeding women receiving antiretroviral therapy are at lower risk of acquiring HIV.
Summary: While awaiting further studies defining optimal approaches to preventing HIV transmission during breastfeeding, promoting exclusive breastfeeding and assuring antiretroviral treatment for women with advanced HIV disease will likely prevent the majority of needless maternal and infant deaths.