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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
HIV Scare in the Nursery
Gavin du Venage
September 12, 2001
San Francisco Chronicle (09.10.01) - Wednesday, September 12,

In Johannesburg, Evette Harrison's maid would often comfort her employer's infant by having the child suck her breast. For some white South Africans, it was simply part of growing up in Africa, where traditional child-raising methods have resisted change. Harrison, who lives in a small farming community in rural KwaZulu-Natal province, gave little thought to the practice - until she began to worry that it might expose her baby to HIV. "When I saw my domestic worker's breast in my baby's mouth, my first thought was of AIDS," Harrison recalled. "I was absolutely terrified that Fransina might be infected and could have passed on the virus to my baby." What Harrison did next is illegal, but it has become a widespread practice among white "madams" who employ black women to care for their offspring. "I took Fransina to our family doctor for a blood test and asked him to give the results to me directly," she said. The tests confirmed her worst fears. Her domestic worker was HIV-positive. Happily for Harrison, her baby tested negative. But she dismissed her maid, giving her six months salary and sending her home to her family.

Harrison's fear is an increasingly common response by white South Africans, who have been relatively unaffected up to now by the AIDS pandemic devastating its black citizens. The hysteria has had tragic consequences for tens of thousands of unskilled black women, for whom domestic service offers the only hope of regular employment. Maids are an integral part of South African life. Most white parents today were brought up by "ousies," or housemaids, as were their parents and grandparents. Employers go to great lengths to ensure that their servants are HIV-negative. At least 30 doctors in and around Johannesburg are being investigated for divulging the HIV status of patients to third parties -usually employers.

Dr. Ruben Sher, a pioneering South African HIV researcher, confirmed that there has been at least one documented case in which a child contracted HIV after the mother, who had postpartum depression, handed her baby to a wet nurse to be breast-fed. But in cases such as Harrison's, where no milk was delivered, the chance of passing the virus is almost zero. "If the domestic worker is not lactating and is just using the breast as a comforter, there is very little risk. The only way it can be transmitted is if there are sores on both the baby's mouth and on the woman's nipple," Sher said.