What is perinatal HIV?
Perinatal means the time right before and right after birth. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is the virus that attacks your immune system and causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). The words "perinatal HIV" mean that HIV has been passed to the new baby from the mother.
Mothers who have HIV and who are not treated and who do not breastfeed have about a 25% chance of passing HIV onto their babies. The good news is that treatment with a group of drugs called antiretrovirals can reduce this chance to 2% or less.
If I'm thinking about becoming pregnant or if I'm pregnant, should I get tested for HIV?
You don’t have to be tested, but doctors recommend that all pregnant women get tested for HIV infection. If you find out that you are infected with HIV, you might choose not to have children. If you are already pregnant when you find out, you have time to think about starting treatment and doing other things to lower the chance that your baby will be infected with HIV.
How can my baby get perinatal HIV?
If you have HIV, your baby can get HIV several ways: during pregnancy, during labor and delivery, or during breastfeeding. Most babies get infected with HIV during labor and delivery. There may be less of a chance of passing HIV to your baby if you have a cesarean delivery (a C-section). Talk about this with your doctor.
How can I find out if my baby has HIV?
During pregnancy, the mother's antibodies (part of the immune system that fights germs) are passed on to her baby. So all babies of women who have HIV will test positive for HIV antibodies at first. This doesn't mean the baby is infected. Babies keep the mother's antibodies until they can make their own, which happens between 6 and 18 months of age.
If the baby isn't infected, he or she will lose the mother's antibodies and start to test negative for HIV sometime between 6 and 18 months of age.
If the baby is infected with HIV, he or she will still lose the mother's antibodies, but the baby will start to make antibodies to HIV. The baby will test positive and continue to test positive for HIV.
Other blood tests, called PCR and viral culture, can also be used to check babies for HIV infection. These tests may be able to tell your doctor if your baby is infected during the first 6 months of age. These tests aren't available at all clinics, so ask your doctor if they are available.
Should I end my pregnancy if I find out I'm HIV-positive?
Not necessarily. You should talk about it with your doctor. Treatment with antiretroviral medicine can lower the chance that you will pass the HIV virus to your baby.
Can medicines prevent my baby from getting HIV?
Medicine can't totally protect your baby from getting HIV, but it can significantly lower the chance that the baby will get the virus. An antiretroviral medicine called zidovudine (also called AZT) can reduce the chance of passing HIV from mother to baby to less than 2%. Zidovudine slows the growth of the virus, so the baby's immune system (which helps fight germs and illness) can get stronger. Zidovudine is often used in combination with other anti-HIV drugs.
Will AZT hurt my baby?
Doctors and researchers think that AZT is safe for unborn babies. AZT is not thought to cause birth defects in babies whose mothers took the drug during pregnancy. However, the medicine hasn't been used in pregnant women long enough to know exactly what will happen to their children when they get older. Talk about the risks and benefits of AZT with your doctor.
Should I breastfeed my baby if I have HIV?
Because HIV can be passed to the baby through breast milk, it's better to bottle feed your baby if you are infected with HIV.
Where can I go for answers to my questions about HIV during pregnancy?
- Your doctor
- The local health department (look in the telephone book, under your city's "government" listing)
- The National HIV/AIDS Treatment Information Service at 800-448-0440, or AIDSinfo.nih.gov.
- Local resources (look in the telephone book, under HIV or AIDS)
Adapted from Pregnancy, HIV, and AZT--What Are My Options? Florida AIDS Education and Training Centers Network, funded by HRSA HHS-BHP grant no. U69 PE00101-05.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff