Background: Up to 40% of all mother-to-child transmission of HIV occurs by means of breast-feeding; yet, in developing countries, infant formula may not be a safe option. The World Health Organization recommends heat-treated breast milk as an infant-feeding alternative. We investigated the ability of a simple method, flash-heat, to inactivate HIV in breast milk from HIV-positive mothers.
Methods: Ninety-eight breast milk samples, collected from 84 HIV-positive mothers in a periurban settlement in South Africa, were aliquoted to unheated control and flash-heating. Reverse transcriptase (RT) assays (lower detection limit of 400 HIV copies/mL) were performed to differentiate active versus inactivated cell-free HIV in unheated and flash-heated samples.
Results: We found detectable HIV in breast milk samples from 31% (26 of 84) of mothers. After adjusting for covariates, multivariate logistic regression showed a statistically significant negative association between detectable virus in breast milk and maternal CD4+ T-lymphocyte count (P=0.045) and volume of breast milk expressed (P=0.01) and a positive association with use of multivitamins (P=0.03). All flash-heated samples showed undetectable levels of cell-free HIV-1 as detected by the RT assay (P<0.00001).
Conclusions: Flash-heat can inactivate HIV in naturally infected breast milk from HIV-positive women. Field studies are urgently needed to determine the feasibility of in-home flash-heating breast milk to improve infant health while reducing postnatal transmission of HIV in developing countries.