Change in drug treatment reduces HIV infection in newborn babies – UN-backed study

A newborn whose mother is HIV-positive

22 July 2009 – Mother-to-child HIV transmission rates can be dramatically cut with the administration of a cocktail of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs over a longer period of time to pregnant and breastfeeding women, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) announced today.

Newborn babies are over 40 per cent less likely to become infected with the virus if HIV-positive pregnant women take a combination of three ARV drugs from the last trimester of pregnancy until six months into breastfeeding, rather than a short course of drugs that ends at delivery, according to a new study led by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The study – named Kesho Bora, which means “a better future” in Swahili – involved 1,140 women from Burkina Faso, Kenya and South Africa and showed that a significant reduction can be achieved in many pregnant women with a lowered immune cell count.

In many developing countries HIV-positive mothers face a tough choice between breastfeeding their babies and risking the transmission of the virus through their milk, or giving them formula which deprives infants of the natural immunity passed on through breast milk and helps protect against diarrhoea, malnutrition and other potentially deadly diseases.

UNAIDS said in a news release that it was clear that the Kesho Bora research increases the range of treatment options available to mothers living with the virus and offers them hope that, if they so wish, they have a greater chance of breastfeeding their babies without passing on HIV.

The agency added that there is no increased risk to the health of the mother or the infant associated with this triple-ARV regimen, consisting of zidovudine, lamivudine and lopinavir/ritonavir.

“Strengthened services for maternal health, for reproductive health and for paediatric health will mean we can prevent mothers from dying and babies from becoming infected with HIV in Lesotho and around the world,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé during a recent visit to Lesotho in Southern Africa.

The initial findings of the three-year study were presented at the 5th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention, which concluded today in Cape Town, South Africa.

WHO worked on the study in partnership with the French National Agency for Research on AIDS and Viral Hepatitis (ANRS), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of the US National Institutes of Health.

Additional funds for the Kesho Bora study were provided by the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership, the Thrasher Foundation, the UK Department for International Development, UNICEF and the Belgian Government.

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