More than 350,000 new infant cases of HIV are diagnosed each year. Of those cases, about 50-percent are linked to breastfeeding. However, breast milk antibodies have the ability to kill HIV cells, so the same milk that causes infection can also prevent infection, with a little help. Results of the study are published in the Journal of Virology.

Doctors have known antibodies to HIV are present in breast milk, but with more than 175,000 cases of HIV transmission via breastfeeding occurring each year, there is something missing. According to researchers, the antibodies are not quite strong enough to block HIV all together, but that's something researchers could change. With the help of IgG antibodies, doctors may be able to prevent the transmission of HIV via breastfeeding, which could change the lives of many infants living in situations where breastfeeding is the only viable source of nutrition. IgA antibodies are present in breast milk, but these antibodies do not effectively enhance HIV antibodies in breast milk as once thought.

Not all HIV-infected women breastfeed. In most western nations, formula feeding is the suggested alternative. When infants are formula fed, there is no chance of transmission, though infants born to HIV-positive mothers are still at risk of infection. Typically, testing is completed by 18-months post birth. If the infection has not developed by 18-months, infants are considered safe. Formula feeding during this time is not an option for all mothers, however. In poor nations, breastfeeding is the only option and thus transmission risk is higher.

Infant transmission risk is currently reduced by the use of anti-retroviral medications, but doctors are not looking for another treatment they are looking for a complete block by enhancing natural immunities in breast milk. Theoretically, the combination of retroviral medications and enhancement of natural antibodies in breast milk could provide complete protection for the infant.

Further research is needed into the effect of IgG antibodies on HIV antibodies found in breast milk.

Source: G. G. Fouda, et al. Journal of Virology. 19 September, 2011.