Of course, now that you’re expecting, you probably have lots of questions, some of which relate to how your HIV-positive status will impact your pregnancy and your baby.
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The goal in every pregnancy is to keep both mom and baby healthy — and I’m happy to say that this is a goal that’s well within your reach. Just because you have HIV does not mean you can’t have a happy, healthy pregnancy, and a happy, healthy baby. Basically, the same things that keep you healthy will keep your baby healthy. Risks of transmitting the virus to your baby decrease as your own viral load decreases.
In fact, if you are on HIV medication and take the medications as prescribed, there’s only a 1% chance of passing HIV to your baby. In my 11 years as an HIV specialist, and having seen over 150 pregnant patients with HIV, I have never had a patient pass HIV to her baby. However, if you’re not on HIV meds, or don’t take them like you’re supposed to, there’s a 25% chance (basically a one in four chance) that you will pass HIV to the baby. Even medication at the last minute, at the time of labor, cuts the risk and some states have laws about testing mothers during labor if an HIV test result is not on file for the pregnancy.
So let’s talk about what you need to do to keep both you and your little one healthy. Many women wonder how HIV can be transmitted to the baby. HIV can be transmitted during pregnancy, during labor and delivery, or by breastfeeding. We’ll talk about what you can do during pregnancy, during labor, and after your baby is born to decrease the chances of transmitting the virus.
The Right Doctor and the Right Tests
It can be very helpful to have an obstetrician with experience treating HIV-positive women, in part because the decisions regarding whether to use certain “invasive” genetic tests can be difficult. Many pregnant women undergo a variety of screening tests. During the first trimester these tests include a fetal ultrasound and a blood test for mom. This screening process can help determine the risk of the fetus having certain birth defects (Down syndrome, trisomy 18, or trisomy 13). Second trimester prenatal screening may include additional blood testing (of mom) called Multiple Markers. These include alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), hCG, estriol, and inhibin. These markers provide information about a woman’s risk of having a baby with genetic conditions or birth defects. This screening is usually performed between the 15th and 20th weeks of pregnancy.
If the results of these tests are abnormal, genetic counseling is recommended. Additional testing may be needed for an accurate diagnosis. These tests include chorionic villus sampling (CVS) and amniocentesis, both of which are considered “invasive.” During amniocentesis, a small amount of amniotic fluid is removed by inserting a long, thin needle through your belly and into the womb. In CVS, chorionic villi cells are removed from the placenta, either in the same way amniocentesis is performed or through the cervix using a catheter and gentle suction.
Because these tests are invasive, they involve at least a theoretical increased risk of transmitting the virus to the baby. To date, there have been 159 reported invasive procedures on HIV-positive moms with no transmission of HIV to the baby. In all cases, women were on HAART with undetectable viral loads and though no transmissions of HIV have occurred, a small increase in risk can’t be ruled out. Therefore, any HIV-positive woman undergoing any invasive procedure should be on HAART and have an undetectable viral load at the time of the procedure.
Some experts consider CVS too risky to offer to their HIV-positive patients and recommend limiting invasive procedures to amniocentesis only, but existing data on transmission risk associated with these procedures are limited. Invasive testing procedures should be discussed thoroughly with your OB and between you and your partner. Your OB (or genetic counselor) will discuss the pros and cons of invasive testing with you. But ultimately, whether to test (or not to test) is a personal decision.
How to Reduce the Risk of Transmitting HIV to Your Baby During Pregnancy
Keeping your viral load low is important during pregnancy to reduce the risk of transmission. Regardless of what is recommended based solely on your CD4+ and VL levels, you may want to start taking HIV meds as soon as you learn you are pregnant. Yes, there are guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that recommend when to start treatment based on CD4+ and VL, but there are groups of people for which treatment is recommended no matter what. Pregnant women are one of those groups. We are trying to prevent your baby from becoming infected.
Earlier initiation of therapy may be more effective in reducing in utero transmission. In fact, a 2010 study conducted in France found that “early and sustained control of HIV viral replication is associated with decreased residual risk of transmission and favors initiating HAART drugs as early in pregnancy as possible for all women.” In other words, starting HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) drugs early to control the viral load as much as possible decreased the chances that the virus would be transmitted to the baby. In fact, we know that having an undetectable viral load substantially lowers the risk of transmission of HIV to the fetus and lessens the need for consideration of cesarean delivery (C-section). That’s why I have always suggested that my patients start HAART immediately after learning about their pregnancy.