The first week of August is World Breastfeeding Week and the aim is to highlight the importance of this strategy in child survival, especially in poor communities.
Breast milk is the best food for babies and contains all the nutrients they need to grow and ward off illness. Children who are not breast fed are six times more likely to die from three main baby-killers – pneumonia, diarrhoea and malnutrition – than those who receive breast milk.
The Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding – where babies receive nothing but breast milk – for the first six months of babies' lives to ensure they get all the health benefits.
However, HIV-positive mothers can transmit the virus through their breast milk, but mothers who are on ARVs with undetectable viral loads usually don't transmit the virus.
Nevirapine, an antiretroviral drug given to babies born to HIV-positive mothers, can reduce the risk of transmission during breastfeeding to just below two percent. To achieve this rate, however, HIV-exposed infants must receive a daily dose of the drug and must be exclusively breast fed.
South Africa has one of the lowest exclusive breastfeeding rates in the world, with only 8% of mothers breastfeeding for the recommended six months.
The majority of children under 6 months are being mixed fed, where mothers breastfeed but also give their babies solids and other fluids. Mixed feeding is responsible for high rates of diarrhea and contributes significantly to infant malnutrition and deaths.
Babies of HIV-infected mothers who are mixed fed are eleven times more likely to contract the virus than breastfed babies, according to research. The solid food and formula milk seem to damage their intestines' sensitive lining, making it easy for the virus to infect them.
Many factors influence a mother's ability to optimally feed her infant. Reasons for low rates of exclusive breastfeeding include a lack of education about its benefits, a lack of support in the workplace and a culture of mixed-feeding, where breast milk is thought to be inadequate.
These obstacles can be addressed through support from family, community and health services.
The Department of Health has organized activities across the provinces to demonstrate the importance of community engagement in influencing and supporting exclusive breastfeeding as well as overcoming its challenges.