If a pregnant woman has HIV, she can pass it to her baby in the womb, during birth, or after birth through breastfeeding. Also, if a woman contracts HIV while pregnant, she can pass the virus to her baby.
Currently there are medications and medical interventions that can reduce the risk of transmission of HIV from mother to child. Without treatment or breastfeeding about 25% (1 in 4) of pregnant women with HIV pass on HIV to their babies. If women take these antiviral medication before and during birth, and their babies are given medication after birth, HIV transmission is reduced from 25% to less than 2%.
For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HIV testing for all pregnant women as a standard part of prenatal care in order to identify and treat HIV and to prevent transmission of HIV to infants.
A large percentage of infected infants become infected late in pregnancy or during delivery, so getting tested and starting treatment early in pregnancy can reduce the risk of a HIV-infected mother transmitting the disease to her unborn child and slow down the progression of HIV disease in the mother.
Preventing mother-to-child transmission
Transmission of HIV from an HIV positive mother to her child can occur during preganancy, during labour or after delivery through breastfeeding. The risk of mother-to-child transmission can be reduced by the following:
- Treatment with antiretroviral drugs (ARTs)
- Caesarian section
- Avoid breastfeeding. It is only recommended to avoid breastfeeding when replacement feeding (such as formula) is acceptable, feasible, affordable, sustainable and safe.
It is important that pregnant women understand that testing is for the benefit of their child. Pregnant women should feel comfortable talking with their doctors about their status and should create a treatment, delivery, and breastfeeding plan that both the healthcare provider and the mother feel comfortable with.
For more regarding the importance of HIV testing for women, check out our brochure: Pregnancy and the HIV Test