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Health Policy Plan. 2002 Jun;17(2):154-60.

Free formula milk for infants of HIV-infected women: blessing or curse?

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  • 1Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, University of Natal, Congella, South Africa.


There is vigorous controversy around whether HIV-infected women in developing countries should choose formula or breastfeeding for their infants. Formula eliminates HIV transmission but incurs risk of increased mortality, whereas breastfeeding has multiple benefits but entails risk of HIV transmission. International guidelines are available but need to be strengthened. This commentary summarizes data on the scale and rate of mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV through breastfeeding, and the hazards and benefits of breast- and formula-feeding. The case against providing free or subsidized formula to HIV-infected mothers is based on the following: it exacerbates disadvantages of formula feeding; compromises free choice; targets beneficiaries erroneously; creates a false perception of endorsement by health workers; compromises breastfeeding; results in disclosure of HIV status; ignores hidden costs of preparation of formula; increases mixed breastfeeding, which is an unsatisfactory method for all women; requires organization and management of programmes that are complicated and costly; and finally increases the 'spill-over' effect into the normal breastfeeding population. Recommendations to minimize these drawbacks include use of affordable antiretrovirals to reduce MTCT; investments in high-quality, widely available HIV counselling; support for choice of feeding; and exclusive breastfeeding for those who choose to breastfeed.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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