4 HIV in mother and baby

Take the chapter quiz before and after you read this chapter.

Open chapter quiz

Close quiz

First time? Register for free. Just enter your email or cell number and create a password.

Waiting for an Internet connection …

Reload page

Close quiz



When you have completed this chapter you should be able to:

  1. Understand the basics of HIV infection
  2. List the ways in which HIV is spread between adults
  3. Understand how HIV infection is diagnosed
  4. Explain how adults can prevent becoming infected with HIV
  5. Understand how HIV can be transmitted from mother to child
  6. Prevent mother to child transmission during pregnancy and labour
  7. Assist HIV positive mothers to choose how best to feed their newborn baby
  8. Support HIV positive mothers

Basics of HIV infection

4-1 What is HIV infection?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is a virus (type of germ) which infects humans and causes a serious illness called HIV disease. HIV belongs to a group of viruses called retroviruses.

A person with HIV infection is called HIV positive (HIV + ve). A person without HIV infection is called HIV negative (HIV – ve).

4-2 What is AIDS?

When HIV disease becomes advanced and threatens the person’s life it is called AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. People with AIDS are clinically unwell and have many health problems. Most people with HIV infection who are correctly managed will remain clinically well and will should not develop AIDS.

Most people with HIV infection will never develop AIDS if they are correctly managed.

4-3 How does HIV cause disease?

HIV weakens and damages the cells of the immune system. These are a group of special cells in the body which help to prevent many infections. These immune cells are called CD4 cells. The CD4 cells act as soldiers which fight off infections and protect the body. With early HIV infection the immune system still functions normally and the person remains clinically well.

HIV damages the immune system which then can no longer protect the body against many dangerous infections.

4-4 Why does HIV disease slowly become worse?

Once the body is infected with HIV the virus slowly multiplies. As the amount of virus in the body (called the viral load) increases over time more and more CD4 cells are killed. This progressively weakens the immune system and the person starts to become ill, first with mild infections and later with severe infections.This can be prevented with the correct treatment.

Without the correct treatment HIV infection progresses and is divided into 4 clinical stages.

4-5 What are the 4 clinical stages of HIV infection?

4-6 How is HIV infection diagnosed in adults?

Testing for HIV in adults and older children is simple and fast and can be done at most health facilities. A sample of finger prick blood is needed. The rapid HIV test detects any HIV antibodies and can be done at the health facility. The result is available in a few minutes. The presence of HIV antibodies in a person’s blood indicates that they have been infected with HIV. Counselling is needed before the test to explain the importance of the test and how it is done. It is also needed after the test when the person is given the results.

HIV is diagnosed with a simple, rapid HIV test on a sample of blood.

Spread and prevention of HIV infection

4-7 Can HIV infection spread from person to person?

Yes. The virus can be spread (transmitted) from person to person. Therefore HIV is an infectious disease. Every effort must be made to prevent the spread of HIV.

4-8 Which people with HIV infection are infectious to others?

All people with HIV infection who are not on antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) are infectious to others.

People with stage 1 infection have not produced antibodies to HIV yet so they have a high viral load and are very infectious to others. Patients with stage 4 infection also have a high viral load as their immune system is too weak to produce antibodies. Therefore people with stage 4 infection are also very infectious to others. Patients with stage 2 and 3 HIV do produce antibodies to fight the HIV infection, but they are still infectious to others.

The correct use of antiretroviral treatment lowers the HIV viral load in the body and prevents the spread of HIV to others.

4-9 How is HIV spread?

There are two common ways that HIV is spread from one person to another:

Less common ways to become infected with HIV are sharing unsterilised injection syringes or needles, razor blades or skin piercing instruments that are used for tattooing. Blood transfusions are safe in South Africa as all donated blood is screened for HIV. Insect bites do not spread HIV.

In adults HIV is usually spread by sexual intercourse.

4-10 What daily activities do not spread HIV?

4-11 How common is HIV infection in South Africa?

HIV infection is very common in South Africa. About 13% (7 million) of people in South Africa are infected with HIV. The percentage of HIV positive pregnant women in 2017 was 21% varies from 5% in the Western Cape to 30% in KwaZulu-Natal.

HIV infection is common in South Africa

4-12 Are women at high risk of becoming infected with HIV?

Yes. Four times more women than men are infected with HIV. The risk is particularly high in young women who have older or multiple sex partners. These women are often not able to negotiate safe sex.

Young women are at high risk of HIV infection.

4-13 How can women avoid getting HIV infection?

There are 3 important ways that both men and women can prevent becoming infected with HIV. This is called practising safer sex:

Abstain, be faithful and condomise to avoid HIV infection.

Other important ways of reducing the risk of HIV infection are:

4-14 Can people with HIV infection remain well?

Yes. Both adults and children with HIV infection can remain well for many years if they lead a healthy lifestyle and take antiretroviral medication. All children and adults with HIV infection should take ARVs for life.

4-15 What are anti-HIV medicines?

Anti-HIV medicines are called antiretrovirals or ARVs. These are a group of important medicines that act against HIV. These ARVs may be used to prevent HIV infection or control HIV infection. At present HIV infection cannot be cured.

Anti-HIV medicines are called antiretrovirals or ARVs because HIV is a specific type of virus called a retrovirus.

Anti-HIV medicines are called antiretrovirals or ARVs.

4-16 What is HIV stigma?

Many people with HIV infection suffer from stigma. Stigma means disapproval and rejection. This is a negative belief or attitude towards another person who you think is different to yourself because they have HIV. Many people incorrectly believe that someone who is HIV positive must be bad, dirty and have no morals, and as a result they should be avoided and punished.

Mother-to-child transmission of HIV infection

4-17 How can HIV spread from mother to child?

Mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV can take place at three different times:

HIV can spread from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding.

4-18 What is the risk of mother to child transmission of HIV?

If an HIV positive mother and her baby are not receiving ARVs the estimated risk of the baby being infected with HIV is:

Therefore the overall risk for HIV transmission in an HIV positive mother who is not receiving ARVs and practices mixed breastfeeding for 6 months is about 25%.

The risk of transmission is higher if the mother becomes infected with HIV while she is pregnant or still breastfeeding.

Preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV infection

4-19 Can the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV be reduced or prevented?

Yes. The risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be reduced or prevented by:

The risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be reduced to less than 1%.

4-20 How should pregnant women be managed for HIV infection?

It is important that all HIV positive mothers are identified when they book for antenatal care so that they can be managed in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme.

4-21 How should pregnant women be screened for HIV?

All pregnant women must book early for antenatal care and be screened for HIV at the first visit.

4-22 How should pregnant women be managed for HIV infection?

All HIV positive pregnant women should be started on ARVs if they are not already receiving ARVs. Management with ARVs is started as soon as the diagnosis of HIV infection is made and these women must remain on ARVs for life. ARVs will reduce the risk of mother-to-child-transmission of HIV as well as control the mother’s HIV infection and keep her healthy.

4-23 What medication is given to pregnant women with HIV?

Pregnant women should take one ARV tablet every evening at bedtime. This is the fixed dose combination (FDC) tablet. The tablet contains three different ARVs. These will be prescribed at the healthcare facility. It is very important that the mother takes her medication every day during her pregnancy, labour and after delivery.

All mothers should have a 6 week postnatal check. At this time the further management of HIV positive mothers will be made. They will need routine follow up visits. All HIV positive women should continue with ARVs for life to prevent them developing HIV disease.

HIV positive pregnant women should start daily ARVs for life.

4-24 What medication is given to newborn babies born to pregnant women with HIV infection?

Babies born to mothers who are HIV positive are called HIV exposed babies. HIV exposed babies should be given a daily dose of nevirapine drops starting within one hour after they are born. The daily nevirapine drops for the baby should be continued until 6 weeks after birth. The nevirapine drops will not hurt the baby but will protect the baby from HIV infection. Some babies at high risk of HIV infection may also be given AZT drops for 6 weeks.

HIV exposed babies must be given nevirapine drops daily for 6 weeks.

4-25 What follow up is needed for babies born to HIV positive mothers?

HIV exposed babies must be closely followed up at a primary care clinic. At birth and again at 10 weeks old, HIV exposed babies will have a PCR blood test to assess whether they have been infected with HIV. The PCR test for babies is different from the rapid screening test used for children of 18 months or more and for adults.

The 10 weeks screen is usually done when immunisations are given and the mother has her postnatal visit:

Feeding babies born to mothers with HIV infection

4-26 How should HIV positive mothers feed their newborn babies?

Women with HIV infection should be carefully counselled during pregnancy so that they can decide and plan how to feed their newborn baby. They have two options:

Mixed feeding of both breast milk and formula should NOT be used as this increases the risk of HIV crossing in the breast milk to the baby.

4-27 Which mothers should exclusively breastfeed?

Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the best method of feeding a newborn baby for both HIV positive and HIV negative women. The risk of HIV passing from mother to baby is very small if both are correctly taking ARVs.

The main advantages of exclusive breastfeeding are:

All mothers should be encouraged to practice exclusive breastfeeding.

4-28 Which mothers should consider exclusive formula feeding?

For both HIV positive and HIV negative women exclusive formula feeding should only be considered if all the following can be met:

Whenever possible cups rather than bottles should be used to formula feed as cups are much easier to clean properly with soap and water.

If an HIV positive mother refuses ARVs she should exclusively formula feed her baby.

4-29 When is the risk of HIV transmission increased in breastfeeding mothers?

When using ARVs the risk of HIV transmission with exclusive breastfeeding is very small.

Supporting HIV positive mothers

4-30 How can community health workers play a role in reducing the rate of HIV among women in the community?

Community health workers can prevent the spread of HIV in the community, reduce the number of deaths from HIV and improve the health of women. Community health workers can:

4-31 How can community health workers support pregnant women and young mothers with HIV?

Community healthcare workers have an important role to play in supporting HIV positive mothers.

Case study 1

A young, unmarried woman, who is pregnant for the first time, books for antenatal care at 20 weeks after her last menstrual period. When screened for HIV she is found to be HIV positive.

1. What test is used to screen pregnant women for HIV infection?

The rapid HIV test for HIV antibodies is used to screen adults for HIV infection. This simple test can be done at the health facility on a small sample of blood. The result is available within 30 minutes.

2. Should pregnant women start antenatal care at 20 weeks gestation?

No. All pregnant women should book early for antenatal care and be screened for HIV before 12 weeks after their last normal menstrual period. This allows for the early diagnosis and management of HIV which prevents HIV crossing from the mother to her unborn baby.

3. Can a woman be infected with HIV and be clinically well?

Yes. Many people in the early stages of HIV infection are clinically well and may not even know they are infected with HIV. Only after a few years of HIV infection will the person become ill (now called HIV disease) if they are not taking ARVs. HIV disease is called AIDS when they become severely ill.

4. How does HIV infection cause illness?

HIV infection damages the immune system. As a result the number of CD4 cells in the blood drops and the person becomes at risk for a wide range of serious infections such as tuberculosis (TB).

5. How is HIV infection usually spread between adults?

By unprotected sexual intercourse. Women are at higher risk than men for infection with HIV.

6. How can the spread of HIV between adults be prevented?

By practising safer sex. This includes abstaining from sexual intercourse, being faithful to one HIV negative partner and using condoms correctly. If HIV positive people take ARVs correctly the risk of spreading HIV is greatly reduced.

Case study 2

A 32 year old mother of two children books for antenatal care at 12 weeks of gestation. She knows that both she and her husband are HIV positive. She is clinically well and not on ARVs (antiretroviral treatment) as her CD4 count is still normal.

1. Should this woman be started on antiretroviral treatment?

Yes. All pregnant women who are HIV positive must be started on ARVs even if they are clinically well with a normal CD4 count. They must continue taking ARVs for life.

2. Which antiretroviral treatment is usually used for pregnant women?

A once a day fixed dose combination (FDC) tablet which contains 3 different ARVs. The tablet should be taken every the evening before going to bed.

3. What are the benefits of antiretroviral treatment in pregnancy?

It keeps the mother well and also prevents the spread of HIV to her unborn baby and newborn baby. It will also help prevent spreading HIV to her partner or partners.

4. When can HIV spread from mother to child?

HIV may cross from the mother to her baby during pregnancy, delivery and while breastfeeding.

5. What is the risk of mother-to-child infection?

Without the correct management with ARVs, the risk of HIV transmission from a mother who has a vaginal delivery and breastfeeds her baby is about 25%. However with correct management with ARVs the risk of transmission from mother to baby is very small and can be less than 1%.

Case study 3

A woman in her last three months of pregnancy has been on ARVs since she was found to be HIV positive early in her pregnancy. When attending an antenatal visit she tells the Community Healthcare Worker that she plans to formula feed her baby as her mother says that breastfeeding is dangerous if one is HIV positive.

1. Should HIV positive women breastfeed?

Yes. If ARVs are taken correctly by mother and baby the risk of HIV crossing in the breast milk is very small. Therefore both HIV positive and HIV negative women should be encouraged to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months.

2. What factors may increase the risk of HIV transmission while breastfeeding?

3. What medication is usually given to HIV exposed newborn babies?

From birth the baby should receive a daily dose of nevirapine drops (an ARV). This should be continued until 6 weeks of age.

4. How should HIV exposed babies be screened for HIV infection?

If the mother is HIV positive, a PCR screening test should be done at birth and again at 10 weeks when the baby attends a clinic for immunisation. If the test is positive the baby has been infected with HIV and must be started on ARVs immediately. If the test is negative the baby has not been infected with HIV during pregnancy and delivery. The test must be repeated 6 weeks after the last breastfeed.

5. How can a Community Health Worker support an HIV positive mother?

Buy books

Did you know? Training and learning can be easier on paper. Buy our books now, or order in bulk at low cost.