Little is known about the long-term safety of infant feeding interventions aimed at reducing breast milk HIV transmission in Africa.
Methods and Findings
In 2001–2005, HIV-infected pregnant women having received in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, a peripartum antiretroviral prophylaxis were presented antenatally with infant feeding interventions: either artificial feeding, or exclusive breast-feeding and then early cessation from 4 mo of age. Nutritional counseling and clinical management were provided for 2 y. Breast-milk substitutes were provided for free. The primary outcome was the occurrence of adverse health outcomes in children, defined as validated morbid events (diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, or malnutrition) or severe events (hospitalization or death). Hazards ratios to compare formula-fed versus short-term breast-fed (reference) children were adjusted for confounders (baseline covariates and pediatric HIV status as a time-dependant covariate). The 18-mo mortality rates were also compared to those observed in the Ditrame historical trial, which was conducted at the same sites in 1995–1998, and in which long-term breast-feeding was practiced in the absence of any specific infant feeding intervention. Of the 557 live-born children, 262 (47%) were breast-fed for a median of 4 mo, whereas 295 were formula-fed. Over the 2-y follow-up period, 37% of the formula-fed and 34% of the short-term breast-fed children remained free from any adverse health outcome (adjusted hazard ratio [HR]: 1.10; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.87–1.38; p = 0.43). The 2-y probability of presenting with a severe event was the same among formula-fed (14%) and short-term breast-fed children (15%) (adjusted HR, 1.19; 95% CI, 0.75–1.91; p = 0.44). An overall 18-mo probability of survival of 96% was observed among both HIV-uninfected short-term and formula-fed children, which was similar to the 95% probability observed in the long-term breast-fed ones of the Ditrame trial.
The 2-y rates of adverse health outcomes were similar among short-term breast-fed and formula-fed children. Mortality rates did not differ significantly between these two groups and, after adjustment for pediatric HIV status, were similar to those observed among long-term breast-fed children. Given appropriate nutritional counseling and care, access to clean water, and a supply of breast-milk substitutes, these alternatives to prolonged breast-feeding can be safe interventions to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV in urban African settings.
Given appropriate nutritional counseling and care, access to clean water, and supply of breast milk substitutes, replacing prolonged breast-feeding with formula-feeding appears to be a safe intervention to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV in this setting.
The HIV virus can be transmitted from infected mothers to their babies during pregnancy and birth as well as after birth through breast milk. Mother-to-child transmission in developed countries has been all but eliminated by treatment of mothers with the best available combination of antiretroviral drugs and by asking them to avoid breast-feeding. However, in many developing countries, the best drug treatments are not available to mothers. Moreover, breast-feeding is generally the best nutritional choice for infants, especially in areas where resources such as clean water, formula feed, and provision of healthcare are scarce. And even if formula feed is available, formula-fed babies might be at higher risk of dying from diarrhea and chest infections, which are more common in infants who are not breast-fed. International guidelines say that HIV-positive mothers should avoid all breast-feeding and adopt formula feeding instead if this option is practical and safe for them, which would require that they can afford formula feed and have easy access to clean water. If formula-feeding is not feasible, guidelines recommend that mothers should breast-feed only for the first few months and then stop and switch the baby to solid food. One of these two alternative options should be feasible in most African cities if mothers are given the right support.
Why Was This Study Done?
Several completed and ongoing studies are assessing the relative risks and benefits of the two recommended strategies for different developing country locations, and this is one of them. The study, the “Ditrame Plus” trial by researchers from France and Côte d'Ivoire, was conducted in Abidjan, an urban West African setting. The goal was to compare death rates and rates of certain diseases (such as diarrhea and chest infections) between babies born to HIV-positive mothers that were formula-fed and those that were breast-fed for a short time after birth.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
HIV-positive pregnant women were invited to enter the study, and they received short-term drug treatments intended to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to their babies. Women in the trial were then asked to choose one of the two feeding options and offered support and counseling for either one. This support included free formula, transport, and healthcare provision. Babies were followed up to their second birthday, and data were collected on death rates and any serious illnesses. A total of 643 women were enrolled into the study, and safety data were collected for 557 babies, of whom 295 were in the formula group and 262 were in the short-term breast-feeding group. The researchers corrected for HIV infection in the babies and found no evidence that the risk of other negative health outcomes and death rates was any different between the formula-fed babies and short-term breast-fed babies. Looking specifically at individual diseases, the researchers found that the risks for diarrhea and chest infections were slightly higher among formula-fed babies, but this did not translate into a greater risk of death or worse overall health. They also compared the death rates in this study with some historical data from a previous research project done in the same area on children born to HIV-positive mothers who had practiced long-term breast-feeding. The mother-to-child transmission rate of HIV had been much higher in that earlier trial, but looking only at the HIV-negative children, the researchers found no difference in risk for death or serious disease between the formula-fed or short-term breast-fed babies from the Ditrame Plus trial and the long-term breast-fed babies from the earlier trial.
What Do These Findings Mean?
This study shows that if HIV-positive mothers are well supported, either of the two feeding options currently recommended (formula-only feed, or short-term breast-feeding) are likely to be equivalent in terms of the baby's chances for survival and health. However, women in this study were offered a great deal of support and the findings may not necessarily apply to real-life situations in other settings in Africa, or outside the context of a research project. In addition to routine care after birth, access to better drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission in developing countries remains an important goal.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040017.
Resources from Avert (an AIDS charity) on HIV and infant feeding.
Information from the US Centers for Disease Control on mother-to-child transmission of HIV
Guidelines from the World Health Organization on mother-to-child transmission of HIV
AIDSMap pages on breast-feeding and HIV
HIV Care and PMTCT in Resource-Limited Setting contains monthly bulletins and a database devoted to HIV/AIDS infections and prevention of the mother-to-child transmission of HIV
The Ghent group is a network of researchers and policymakers in the area of prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV