Babies of South African mothers taking HIV therapy have worse health in early months – unless they are vaccinated and consistently breastfed

A South African study has found that, in general, babies born to HIV-positive mothers who are on antiretroviral therapy do not have worse health outcomes than the children of HIV-negative mothers.

However, it did find that the HIV-positive mothers’ babies had more hospitalisations – especially for lower respiratory tract infections and diarrhoeal disease – in the period from eight days to three months after birth.

Encouragingly, though, this health disadvantage disappeared in babies who received early and complete breastfeeding, and who also received the full course of recommended vaccines.


Antiretroviral therapy (ART) for pregnant women with HIV has stopped hundreds of thousands of babies acquiring HIV and has also, of course, saved the lives of millions of women.

In South Africa alone, 95% of pregnant women with HIV now receive ART (compared with 61% of all people with HIV) and as a result the number of children who acquire HIV per year has declined by 80%, from 70,000 to 13,000.

While these are considerable achievements, they have also had the effect of re-focusing attention on the children of HIV-positive mothers who do not acquire HIV. Previous studies had found that HIV-negative babies born to mothers with HIV generally had poorer health than the babies of negative mothers.

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