Many pregnant women in developing countries don’t find out they’re infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, until they show up at a clinic to give birth. Despite the risk of exposure during birth, many babies born to such women are nevertheless free of the virus.
A study in Kenya in 2000 showed that 16 percent of such babies still end up acquiring HIV through their mothers’ breast milk. Now, a study from Malawi suggests that this transmission rate can be reduced significantly by giving at-risk infants oral doses of two anti-HIV drugs shortly after birth.
Scientists randomly assigned babies of HIV-positive women to get nevirapine or nevirapine plus zidovudine (AZT). Of 444 HIV-negative newborns exposed to the virus through breastfeeding, 8 percent were found to be infected at 8 weeks of age if they had gotten both drugs. Of 421 HIV-negative babies getting only nevirapine, 12 percent were infected at that age, the researchers report in the Oct. 11 Lancet.
Although switching to formula might seem like a feasible solution, the widespread lack of clean water in some countries makes that dangerous. In Africa, infants who aren’t breastfed face strikingly higher odds of dying than those who are, says study coauthor Taha E. Taha of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore.
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