HIV and Pregnancy: How does it affect your newborn child?

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV is a virus that attacks the immunity-building cells, making a person more vulnerable to every other infection. HIV is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex, or through sharing injection drug equipment such as syringes and needles.

Prevalence of HIV in India

The top ten states of India that consist of approximately 71% of annual HIV infection are Telangana, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujrat, Tamil Nadu, and Delhi.

Effect of HIV on Pregnancy: A diagnosis of HIV doesn’t imply that you can never get pregnant or have children, but there are risks of passing on HIV onto your child. In modern-day India, more than 22,000 pregnant women are detected with HIV, and if not intervened, more than 10,000 HIV-infected babies are born annually.

In case you are trying to get pregnant, you should encourage your partner to get tested for HIV, because at most times, if your partner is unaware of being HIV-positive, it can transmit to you too, risking your unborn child in the process. If you are already pregnant, even so, a test for HIV would prepare you for the precautions needed in preventing your baby from getting infected with HIV.

But first, how does HIV transmit from a mother to a child in pregnancy?

HIV may be passed on to your baby during pregnancy, while in labor, during postpartum, or even during breastfeeding. During pregnancy, the HIV virus could pass into your baby’s body through the blood. This usually happens in the last few weeks of pregnancy, i.e., during labor or delivery. Again, breastfeeding can transmit HIV to your infant as there are traces of HIV is in your breastmilk too.

If both you and your partner do not take the necessary medications and treatment for HIV, there is a 15-45% chance of passing HIV on to your baby.

How to prevent the transmission of HIV to your newborn child?

    1. Taking antiretroviral treatment: A timely intake of medication or treatment can reduce the risk of your baby getting infected with HIV to less than 1%. Moreover, your newborn baby will also be treated for HIV for four to six weeks post-birth, to help prevent an HIV infection from developing.

    2. Protection during Childbirth: With proper treatment during pregnancy, the amount of HIV in the body can be reduced to levels that are undetectable. In such cases, you can plan to have a vaginal delivery, since the risk of transmitting HIV to your child is very little. But if your viral load is far from being undetectable, you may have to go through a cesarean section, as a cesarean carries a lesser risk of HIV transmission than a vaginal delivery.

    3. Breastfeeding during HIV: HIV is also present in the breast milk of an HIV-positive new mom; which is why an HIV-positive mother should refrain from breastfeeding if she has access to formula and clean, boiled water. You may breastfeed only if both you and your baby are taking antiretroviral treatment for HIV.

FAST FACT: If you and your baby are taking antiretroviral treatment, continue with only breastfeeding for at least six months. Mixing breastmilk and other foods before six months may increase your baby’s risk of HIV.

How to check for your baby’s HIV?

A newborn baby should be tested for HIV immediately after birth as well as again after four to six weeks. If the results are negative, your child should be tested again when he/she turns 18 months. Once you have finished breastfeeding, your baby should be tested again to find out his/her final HIV status. If any of these tests are positive, the child will be needing immediate treatment with the advice of a healthcare professional.

Most children who have HIV acquire it during birth via Mother–to–child transmission. Efficient knowledge, ample awareness, and timely medication and treatment are the only ways to make sure the rate of HIV in children is reduced.