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J Law Med Ethics. 2019 Mar;47(1):152-160. doi: 10.1177/1073110519840495.

Breastfeeding with HIV: An Evidence-Based Case for New Policy.

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Marielle S. Gross, M.D., M.B.E., is a Hecht-Levi postdoctoral research fellow in the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University where she recently completed residency training in Gynecology & Obstetrics. She attended medical school at the University of Florida, and previously completed degrees in Philosophy, Jewish Ethics and Bioethics at Columbia University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and New York University, respectively. Holly A. Taylor, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Core Faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management (HPM), Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Taylor received her B.A. from Stanford University, her M.P.H. from the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. in health policy with a concentration in bioethics from the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University. Cecilia Tomori, Ph.D., studied biology and education at Swarthmore College and obtained her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 2011. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and served as faculty there between 2013-2017. Jenell S. Coleman, M.D., M.P.H., is associate professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics with a joint appointment in the Department of Medicine and is the medical director of the John's Hopkins Women's Health Center. Dr. Coleman earned her M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and completed Ob/Gyn residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. She completed a fellowship in reproductive infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco and received an M.P.H. from the University of California, Berkeley.


To help eliminate perinatal HIV transmission, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends against breastfeeding for women living with HIV, regardless of viral load or combined antiretroviral therapy (cART) status. However, cART radically improves HIV prognosis and virtually eliminates perinatal transmission, and breastfeeding's health benefits are well-established. In this setting, pregnancy is increasing among American women with HIV, and a harm reduction approach to those who breastfeed despite extensive counseling is suggested. We assess the evidence and ethical justification for current policy, with attention to pertinent racial and health disparities. We first review perinatal transmission and breastfeeding data relevant to US infants. We compare hypothetical risk of HIV transmission from breastmilk to increased mortality from sudden infant death syndrome, necrotizing enterocolitis and sepsis from avoiding breastfeeding, finding that benefits may outweigh risks if mothers maintain undetectable viral load on cART. We then review maternal health considerations. We conclude that avoidance of breastfeeding by women living with HIV may not maximize health outcomes and discuss our recommendation for revising national guidelines in light of autonomy, harm reduction and health inequities.


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