Breast Milk May Guard Against Oral HIV Transmission

By Chelsea Whyte on June 15, 2012 9:07 PM EDT

baby bottles
Should HIV-infected mothers breastfeed or bottle feed? New research shows that their breast milk doesn't transmit the virus. (Photo: Creative Commons)

For years, HIV experts have linked the transmission of the immunodeficiency virus in babies to breastfeeding. But new research from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine finds that breast milk doesn't pass on the disease, and in fact, it may even prevent newborns from getting HIV.

Researchers used a humanized mouse model, where they created mice with fully functioning human immune systems by introducing human bone marrow, liver and thymus tissues into animals without an immune system of their own. They then introduced HIV into oral cavity and digestive tract cells, the pathways that transmit the virus. When injected directly, the virus successfully transmitted to the mice. But when the mice were given breast milk from women with HIV, the virus could not be transmitted.

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"These results are highly significant because they show that breast milk can completely block oral transmission of both forms of HIV that are found in the breast milk of HIV-infected mothers: virus particles and virus-infected cells," said lead author on the study Angela Wahl. "This refutes the 'Trojan horse' hypothesis which says that HIV in cells is more stubborn against the body's own innate defenses than HIV in virus particles."

This is good news for the children of HIV-infected mothers. Breast milk provides important nutrients and protection from other infections, especially in areas where clean water is hard to come by.

More than 15 percent of new HIV infections occur in children. Without treatment, only 65 percent of HIV-infected children will live until their first birthday, and fewer than half will make it to the age of two. Although breastfeeding is attributed to a significant number of these infections, most breastfed infants are not infected with HIV, despite prolonged and repeated exposure, said the study authors.

"We reinforced the belief, and we have solid data that milk is not a vehicle for transmission but may offer protection," said study co-author Victor Garcia, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, according to ABC News. "Milk should not be withheld from children."

The finding may also allow researchers to isolate the properties of breast milk that protect against the virus, which could lead to new treatments against HIV.

Deborah Jack, of the National Aids Trust, cautiously welcomed the findings but said women with HIV should still use artificial baby milk, reports Metro News UK.

"This is an interesting piece of research but it has limitations in that it is small-scale and only carried out on animals," she said. "Until we know more about how it can be applied to humans, it is crucial for HIV+ mothers to follow avoid breastfeeding, using infant formula instead."

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