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There have always been doubts regarding the safety of breast feeding by a hepatitis B positive mother. The researchers have never been sure whether the virus is transmitted through the breast milk, compromising the health of the infant.

Hepatitis B positive mothers can safely breastfeed their babies

According to a recent study published in the “Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine”, that does not seems to be the case and hepatitis B positive mothers can safely feed their babies.

Under Dr. Zhongjie Shi of Temple University in Philadelphia, researches analyzed the data from 10 earlier studies conducted in China. The rate of prevalence of hepatitis B in babies of 1000 positive mothers was compared. Almost half of these women, breastfed their babies. The babies received HBIG and were vaccinated just after birth and two to three times more, to prevent the transmission of the disease from their mothers.

31 babies out of 637, who were breastfed tested positive for hepatitis B before their first year. Of the babies who were not breastfed by their mothers, 33 out of 706 tested positive for the virus. It is clear that there is hardly any difference in the prevalence of hepatitis B in babies who were breastfed and those who were not. The babies who tested positive had most likely been infected while inside the womb or during their birth.

Hepatitis B virus is mainly transmitted from the mother to the baby through blood, followed by the amniotic fluid and vaginal secretions. Chances of transmission while breastfeeding are more likely if the mother has cracked or bleeding nipples or has some lesion on the breast.

Avoiding breastfeeding will deprive the baby of a valuable source of nutrition

Hepatitis B causes chronic inflammation of the liver and damages it. One out of every four individuals infected as a child, dies because of liver cancer or liver scarring caused by the disease. According to the WHO, there are about 350 million carriers of the hepatitis B virus, while more than 620,000 people die of it every year. The virus is transmitted through blood, unclean needles, and unsafe sex. It can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy or child birth.

Earlier, mothers used to avoid breastfeeding their babies out of fear of transmitting the virus through their milk. However, recent studies have indicted that there is no difference in the prevalence of infection between the breastfed and the formula- fed infants, provided they have been adequately vaccinated.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, presence of hepatitis B infection in mothers is not a contraindication for breastfeeding their infants. They only have to take care that their babies receive the HBIG and HBV vaccine as scheduled. Breastfeeding also does not interfere with the immune response to the HBV vaccine. The only contraindication for breastfeeding by a hepatitis B positive mother is when she is receiving antiviral agents. These agents may get expressed in the breast milk and their safety in a child has not been proven.

Hence, it can be safely concluded that breast feeding is safe for hepatitis B positive mothers. Avoiding of breastfeeding by such mothers will deprive their infants of an important source of nutrition.

  • Zhongjie Shi, MD et all. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online May 2, 2011. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.72. Breastfeeding of Newborns by Mothers Carrying Hepatitis B Virus
  • Photo courtesy of Mothering Touch by Flickr :