Homespun technology provides HIV-free breastmilk

Mothers learning about mother-to-child HIV transmission Copyright: E. Warming/EGPAF

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[LUSAKA] Researchers have devised a simple and cost-effective method of preventing breastmilk transmission of HIV from mother-to-child by ‘flash-heating’ infected milk to inactivate the free-floating HIV virus.

A study, published online in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (21 May), provides hope that breastfeeding in developing nations could become safer.

National banks that collect, store and disperse human milk already pasteurise it, but commonly use a method that relies on thermometers and timers that can be hard to obtain in resource-poor communities.

The new method involves simply heating a glass jar of expressed milk in a pan of water over a flame or single burner, so can easily be applied by mothers at home.

The research began in 2004 and was driven by HIV-positive mothers from Zimbabwe wanting to know how they could make their milk safe for their babies, according to Kiersten Israel-Ballard, from the US-based Berkeley School of Public Health, who coordinated the study. 

Of the 700,000 children who become infected with HIV each year, the study says an estimated 40 per cent contract the virus from prolonged breastfeeding that continues for more than six months.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends heat-treating HIV-infected breast milk, but so far there has been sparse research into a simple method that could be used by HIV-positive mothers in developing countries.

“We wanted to be sure that there was scientific evidence that flash-heated milk was truly free of HIV and immunologically beneficial,” Israel Ballard told SciDev.Net.

Infants in developing countries at risk of potentially fatal illnesses such as diarrhoea can’t afford to lose antibodies or the optimal nutrition found in breast milk.

In the study, 84 HIV-positive women contributed breast milk to the research. Tests on flash-heated breast milk showed that the process kills bacteria and the HIV virus, while retaining most of the milk’s nutritional and antimicrobial properties.

Canisius Banda, a spokesperson from the Zambia Ministry of Health, told SciDev.Net that the challenge would be to educate mothers on how to heat the milk.

Current WHO recommendations state that HIV positive mothers should avoid breastfeeding when safe feeding alternatives are available. But in regions where mothers cannot afford the cost of infant formula or where water is contaminated, the WHO recommends mothers should exclusively breastfeed their babies up to six months of age.

Link to abstract in Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes

Reference: Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes doi: 10.1097/QAI.0b013e318074eeca (2007)