Exclusive breast-feeding, introduced in line with WHO guidelines, has proven safe for babies if the mother is on antiretroviral treatment.
Government’s decision in 2011 to introduce a policy of exclusive breast-feeding for babies born to HIV-positive mothers, is paying off.
Yogan Pillay, the deputy director general of the national health department, said the exclusive breast-feeding policy, which saw the government phasing out the provision of infant formula milk to babies born to HIV-positive mothers, is yielding results.
Three years ago the department started phasing out formula milk packages, which were provided for babies born to HIV-infected women in state hospitals for the first six months of their babies’ lives.
The department provided the formula milk as part of government’s mother-to-child HIV-transmission prevention programme. The breast milk of HIV-positive women contains the virus, making breast-fed babies vulnerable to contracting HIV from HIV-positive mothers.
The new exclusive breast-feeding policy is in line with the 2010 World Health Organisation guidelines that stipulate that HIV-positive women can safely breastfeed their babies without infecting them with the virus if they and their babies are on antiretroviral treatment.
New data to be released
Research shows that babies who are exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life – in other words fed only breast milk without the introduction of water or solid foods – are less susceptible to childhood diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, which are the leading causes of death in children under the age of five years in South Africa.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is expected to release the latest prevention-of-mother-to-child transmission of HIV data, which will also include the latest figures on exclusive breast-feeding, soon. International charity Save the Children estimates that in 2012 South Africa had one of the lowest exclusive breast-feeding rates in the world: only 8% of mothers exclusively breast-fed their babies for six months.
“We have found significant increases in reported exclusive breast-feeding rates,” said Pillay.
Pillay said that “there are some practical difficulties” to the policy. “There are two critical issues. The first is providing moms with the right information and support prenatally, during pregnancy and postnatally.”
“The second is working moms, our maternity leave of four months helps but in the last two months moms have to go back to work and some mothers don’t benefit from maternity leave. We’ve been working with business and industry to provide the necessary support to breast-feeding moms that go back to work.”
Pillay said that the department has some upcoming initiatives in place to deal with some of the challenges to exclusive breast-feeding. For example, MomConnect, a cellphone application that aims to register “all one million women who deliver in our public sector every year”, will be used to provide information and support to pregnant women and mothers. It will be launched later this month.