HIV and Pregnancy

Since the early days of the community learning about HIV, there have been many questions and misconceptions about HIV. There have also been many advances in the understanding of HIV and pregnancy. To understand how HIV affects pregnant women and their unborn children, it is important to understand what HIV is and how you can get it.

So what is HIV? HIV stands for “Human Immunodeficiency Virus”. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that damages the immune system over time and is the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Our immune system works on our behalf to keep us healthy and fight infection. Many people with HIV do not know they have HIV because they feel and appear healthy. They can infect others without even knowing it. While there is no known cure for HIV or AIDS, there are many treatments and trials that provide a better quality of life and, in some cases, prolong the lives of people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS.

Let’s talk about how you DON’T get HIV. You can’t get HIV from touching, hugging, or being near someone with HIV. You cannot get HIV from insect or mosquito bites. You can’t get HIV from kissing unless one of you has an open sore or cut inside or outside your mouth. You cannot get HIV from donating blood. HIV is not transmitted through saliva.

Now, how can you get HIV? HIV is transmitted through blood and body fluids, including semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk. Basically, there has to be a way for the HIV virus to leave the infected person and an entrance for the HIV virus to enter their body. The three most common ways to get HIV are through unprotected sex, sharing needles, and from mother to child.

How do I know if I have HIV? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that women who may become pregnant, or who are pregnant, get tested for HIV as soon as possible. If you are already pregnant, you can request an HIV test at any time during your pregnancy, usually at your first prenatal appointment. The sooner the better to reduce the chance of mother-to-child transmission.

If your HIV test is negative and you have unprotected sex or share needles, you should get tested again during your pregnancy. You should ask to be tested again in the third trimester, as it sometimes takes time for the virus to show up in blood tests. It’s a good idea to get tested because you could have been exposed to HIV through unprotected sex, without knowing it and even without your partner knowing it. If you share needles, you may also be at higher risk of contracting HIV, so repeat HIV testing is recommended.

Will my baby have HIV if I am HIV positive? If you find out that you are HIV positive during your pregnancy, meet with your health care provider to discuss treatment options. You must begin treatment immediately and MUST follow the recommended treatment protocol during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and breastfeeding (and beyond) to reduce the chance of transmitting HIV to the baby. It is possible to give birth to a baby who is not HIV positive. The earlier you start antiviral treatment, the greater the chance that your baby will not be HIV positive. If your HIV test is positive, your newborn MUST take an antiviral treatment protocol to reduce the chances of the baby becoming infected with HIV.

Most women who are HIV positive have their babies by cesarean section (C-section). However, some women who are HIV positive can have vaginal deliveries if they have a low viral load (low or undetectable level of HIV in their blood).

In resource-rich countries, such as the United States, women who are HIV positive are strongly encouraged to use infant formula to feed their babies. Infant formula is the safest feeding method for babies born to HIV-positive mothers. However, if you don’t have access to baby formula, sterile bottles, and clean water every day, breastfeeding may be your only option. In this case, it is even more important that you continue to take your daily treatment protocol and that your baby follows your treatment protocol as well. Even if both mother and baby take antiviral drugs, there is still a chance of transmitting HIV to the baby through breast milk.

Thanks to research, education, and improved treatment, many people with HIV live long and healthy lives. As with most diseases, prevention, early detection, and strict adherence to treatment protocols can lead to favorable outcomes.

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