Dr. Titi Abiona, public health physician and lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria was in Chicago recently under the Carnegie Fellowship invitation based on her study on HIV/AIDS infected mothers transmission of the disease to their kids either through breast-feeding or a mixture of infant food with breast-feeding.
Tyler Ayodeji, associate editor spoke with her on her research and other issues.
It’s an exciting interview
Inquirer: What are you trying to achieve through this fellowship?
Dr. Titi Abiona: The essence is to receive qualitative data analysis. We are trying to look at the cultural factors in the body regarding mothers and infants HIV/AIDS transmission and access how mothers are able to practice repeated breast feeding.
Inquirer: What are your findings so far?
Dr. Titi Abiona: I’m still trying to put together. However, in South Western Nigeria, all babies are expected to be breast-fed. All the mothers in the study by the time we were doing the study, every one of them was still breast-feeding children between 0-one year. It is the cultural norm that they must breast feed. The knowledge about HIV/AIDS was quite good but the knowledge about mother to child HIV/AIDS transmission was not as good as the general knowledge about the disease. However, it is not common to see a mother who would not breast-feed. In fact reactions vary from people.
Inquirer: There worldwide held belief is that breastfeeding is the norm. Is HIV/AIDS changing the norm?
Dr. Titi Abiona: The WHO and UNICEF recommendations is that where baby foods are available, affordable and sustainable HIV/AIDS infected mothers should not breast feed. But where these issues are not possible, then the child should be breast-fed for the few months of life and transferred to alternatives.
Inquirer: Does this mean HIV/AIDS could be transmitted through breast-feeding?
Dr. Titi Abiona: Of course yes. Studies have found the virus in breast milk and studies have found that babies that are breast-fed have a higher chance of getting infested. In Africa breast-feeding has been indicated as the reason why there is more pediatric needs than any other continent.
Inquirer: Can you elaborate more on that finding?
Dr. Titi Abiona: The virus (HIV/AIDS) has been found in breast-feeding and many children have been infested through breast-feeding. A lot of studies have been done that confirmed that children that were breast-fed contracted the disease through it. There were studies that revealed that mothers were not HIV/AIDS positive before they delivered their babies but acquired the disease after they delivered the babies and the baby got the disease through breast-feeding. However, studies have shown in South Africa that exclusively breast-fed babies did not have a higher rate of transmission than babies that were not breast-fed at all.
Inquirer: Based on your research in HIV/AIDS spread in Africa among mothers, what are the ways the disease is growing so fast in the Black continent?
Dr. Titi Abiona: The HIV virus could be transmitted through pregnancy, through delivery and through breast-feeding. It is not every one that will get it through pregnancy and it is not every child that will get it through delivery or breast-feeding. The rate of getting it through breast-feeding is between 5-20 percent.
Inquirer: How far is the spread of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria?
Dr. Titi Abiona: In the 2001 HIV report, prevalence in Nigeria was put at 5.8 percent while the 2003 report was put at 5 percent. People queried the 2003 figure. The method used in 2001 was different from the 2003 one but if you ask me for a figure I will just stick to the 2001 figure. Nigeria is a very large country and prevalence varies across board. In some communities, it is less than one percent and in some communities it is more than 2 percent.
Inquirer: What is the rate from the part you did your study?
Dr. Titi Abiona: The prevalence there is less than five percent or about five percent. We really don’t know the prevalence of mother to child transmission because of so many reasons. One, not every mother is expected to take the test. Many children with HIV/AIDS were actually discovered after they had been born. The problem is there.
Inquirer: I read a report on the Internet that said 75 percent of college students in Benue state tested positive to HIV/AIDS during registration physical examination. How far is the report true?
Dr. Titi Abiona: That report was there but people questioned the methodology of the report. I’m not sure it was a published report or a news report.
Inquirer: The UN report recently said 800,000children lost either or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS complications last year?
Dr. Titi Abiona: I really don’t know how many orphans we have in Nigeria as a result of HIV/AIDS complications. My primary focus is because of my involvement in breast-feeding. I’ve done some breast-feeding research in the past. My focus is how to see that the breast-feeding culture does not die. That is what I’ve been trying to promote in the last several years. The issue is, if we say HIV/AIDS infested mothers should not breast-feed and that we should use infant formula just like that, people without HIV/AIDS will not breast-feed.
Inquirer: What is wrong with infant formula?
Dr. Titi Abiona: There is nothing wrong with infant formula. The fact is, many times, people cannot afford to buy infant formula. As such, they wouldn’t use the correct formula. Many people don’t have access to safe water and the children could develop diarrhea and such diseases. That is why we are promoting breast-feeding. Besides, those mothers with HIV/AIDS on the other hand, if they give both breast milk and infant formula to their children at the same time, the risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS is more as against if they exclusively breast-feed the baby.
Inquirer: How about any cure for the disease so far?
Dr. Titi Abiona: A lot of people claim they had been cured for the disease. I watched on the news where a woman claimed she was cured but I can’t authenticate these claims for all these things you hear for obvious reasons.
Inquirer: What about Dr. Abalaka’s claim too?
Dr. Titi Abiona: Those claims have gone under the carpet. Not much is heard from him again but a lot of churches claimed they were able to cure HIV/AIDS and other diseases. One of the doctors I know told me that many of the patients who had gone to these pastors for cure came back for treatment worse than before they went to the pastors.
Inquirer: The prevalence rate in South Africa is 30 percent. Why is the figure so high?
Dr. Titi Abiona: When a country passes five percent prevalence rate, the epidemic enters an exponential phase. The country is in danger.
Inquirer: Where is the way out?
Dr. Titi Abiona: The ways out are in several dimensions. One is to de-stigmatize the disease. That will allow people to come out and be tested. Testing should be made available free of charge. The education about safe sex has to be continued and intensified. Dual protection like the usage of condoms and pregnant parents should be made to undergo testing. Drugs should be made available. It reduces the rate when pregnant women use it.