Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dancing off the milky way: hiv/aids ideology

Who embraced the ideology of Mother to Child Transmission (MTCT) of hiv? Besides the US Department of Health, the infant formula industry and the milk banking industry and associations have embraced this medical ideology. Back in the 80's, the announcement that hiv causes aids was made by the head of the US Department of Health, Margaret Heckler with NIH scientist Robert Gallo. This announcement was done before peer review or any publication of the science behind the belief. The same day of that announcement, patents were taken out by the US Department of Health regarding this belief. One might question whether the race to find the cause of aids was a scientific race or whether it was the pursuit of profit. Later, we would all learn that lies were told, cheating was involved, and that the actual winners of this race were not the Americans but the French. The race was eventually settled by a compromise. How easily the public believes PR campaigns, when it comes from the US Department of Health. The PR back then was so scary that it seemed like we were on the verge of the end of the world. Even the Department of Health believed its own PR campaign and that is always a bad omen for civil liberties.

At first all was well for women and babies. The target was the gay community, then the black community, and then suddenly it became mothers transmitting the virus to babies. Hysteria reigned about the possibility that mothers would transmitt this virus in their breastmilk. Studies were done, announcements were made, and little questioning by the public--since the belief is that only the scientific community can debate this issue. But even debate among scientists was squashed. The infant formula industry embraced the supposed evidence that this new disease passed from mother to child through breastmilk.
Milk banking advocates also embraced the hiv/aids ideology. I suppose to others this all makes sense. Why wouldn't the milk banks understand the science and why wouldn't they believe that donor milk was the answer to the hiv/aids problem?

Back in 1999, I ran across a reference to patents on human milk components. These patents were about using human milk components to treat and inactivate hiv/aids. So I started asking questions of the various milk bank directors. They all thought that it was marvelous that human milk components could treat and inactivate hiv/aids. Yet none questioned the assumption that breastmilk transmitted hiv/aids. The studies done show transmission, end of questions. Yet the studies done on transmission were questionable...particularly when some authors had had funding by the infant formula industry. Some of the questions are based on the very basic problem of defining breastfeeding, of infants carrying maternal antibodies for 18 months or longer(meaning that a positive only shows the mothers disease status not the infant's, and of hiv tests that are inaccurate (test kits stating that the test kit should not be used as a diagnosis).
Embracing hiv/aids ideology means there is a need for breastfeeding substitutes. And yes donor human milk is a breastfeeding substitute. Thus, we have the International Breast Milk Project (IBMP) first call for donations because of hiv/aids in South Africa. (The infant formula industry also had enormous presence in Africa, particularly South Africa because of the hiv/aids crisis). So American women pumped and donated their breastmilk to give to South African babies. As someone who believes that food sources should be locally grown and dispersed. It is hard not to be astounded by the belief system that would have women in one nation donating their breastmilk for infants in a nation across the ocean. Isn't this a waste of resources? Yet, the public relation campaign made it seem very logical and a wonderful gift to South Africa. Just like the breastmilk donations to Haiti, in the blazing lights of media hype seemed like such a great gift.
We, as a nation, believe in transporting food from one part of the country to another, from one nation to another. Yet in a way this cripples the independence of a locality. We now get food from other countries and there are more risks involved because we do not "know" the producers. We pay more for a product that we import because of transportation costs. So with donor milk who absorbs the transportation costs, when it is shipped to another nations? Someone has to pay. Usually, companies or organizations pass the price of transportation onto consumers. Donating breastmilk to other nations will cripple the independence of women in those other nations. It may be free at first, but like all products, free is the hook to get you to buy.
We, now have studies that show that exclusive breastfeeding of hiv positive mothers is life-saving for infants in developing nations. It took years to get to this new policy. The cost of scientific misunderstanding of breastfeeding and hiv/aids is tragic in terms of lives lost. It is difficult to reverse health protocols, particularly when medical staff has to reverse their initial training. Yet, I feel like we should have known better. The patents on human milk components to treat and inactivate hiv/aids should have lead to serious questions regarding the advisability of denying babies breastmilk. Those patents were owned by the infant formula industry, the US Department of Health, and prestigious medical colleges like John Hopkins. The milk banking associations and the for-profit industry had more information than most of the rest of us. Yet, they didn't question policy, but instead embraced the ideology. Blinded?
Copyright 2010 Valerie W. McClain

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