There has been a world wide awareness drive on HIV/AIDS and the demon seems to be loosening its grip. The virus is passed from person to person during sex and through body fluids, such as blood and breast milk. It can also be passed from a woman to her unborn baby during pregnancy and birth. Most people who catch HIV do not have any symptoms for many years, and the only way of telling that they are infected is by testing their blood for antibodies. It takes about three months for the body to produce antibodies to the virus, so if you are tested during these three months, the result will be negative, but later results will be positive. In India, women account for approximately 38 percent of HIV cases. Unfortunately, due to lack of testing and counselling, a large number of pregnant women are unaware that they may be HIV infected and may pass the virus to their baby.
An unborn baby has about a one in seven chance of catching HIV if the mother is HIV positive. Every baby whose mother has HIV is born with antibodies to the virus in his blood. However, these antibodies will disappear over time if the baby does not have HIV. Sometimes, it takes up to 18 months for this to happen. Therefore, it is often difficult to assess that a baby is free from HIV until it is well into toddler-hood. In 2007, 2.1 million children worldwide were infected by HIV. In almost 85-90% cases the infection was contracted due to mother-to-child transmission. If doctors know that a pregnant woman is infected with HIV they can begin antiretroviral therapy within two or three days of delivery to protect the baby.
It is especially important for you to eat a balanced diet that will keep you and your baby healthy. Some studies indicate higher mother to child transmission when the mother is undernourished. It is best to avoid smoking, alcohol, illegal drugs and unsafe sexual practices while you are pregnant. Research indicates that a lowered immunity level due to use of illegal drugs, smoking and genital infection caused by unprotected sex can increase transmission from mother to baby. The patient should consult a medical expert and obstetrician about the safest way for you to deliver the baby. Having a caesarean reduces the risk of baby catching HIV during the birth.
Breastfeeding protects against life-threatening infections. However, it has been shown by research that HIV can be passed on from a mother to her baby through breast-milk. So, it is better for babies whose mothers are HIV positive to be bottle-fed.
AIDS stands for acquired immune-deficiency syndrome. People develop AIDS when their immune system has been so damaged by the HIV virus that they start to catch lots of other infections. It may be eight to 10 years after catching the HIV virus before someone becomes really ill. Often the first signs of AIDS are pneumonia and tumours of the lymph glands.
Dr Tripat Chaudhary (Senior Gynecologist, Fortis La Femme)
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