Around 600,000 babies are born each year in the UK to women considered to be at high risk of having HIV; of these, just 59 are actually born HIV positive.
Despite this, the UK government is embarking on a programme to have every pregnant women tested for HIV, in a move to stop the spread of AIDS.
Last month, health minister Tessa Jowell announced a new government scheme whereby all pregnant women are to be given the HIV test. For any woman who tests positive, her baby will be tested at birth. These mothers will be advised not to breastfeed those who test negative. Doctors will likely administer AIDS drug AZT or the new combination drugs to babies who test positive.
At the moment, the test won’t be mandatory, Ms Jowell assured journalists, although women will be strongly advised to take this test. Nevertheless, if the programme is considered successful, the HIV test is likely to enter the category of tests surrounding pregnancy and birth that are automatically given unless a woman specifically requests to opt out.
While it is the job of every politician to play to the gallery and certainly making loud noises about stopping the spread of AIDS always plays well it is refreshing if they also, on occasion, employ common sense.
In this instance, Tessa Jowell has opted for wholesale use of a test which leading experts around the world argue is hopelessly inaccurate. According to alternative AIDS publication Continuum, the scientific literature is rife with evidence showing that more than 60 conditions besides HIV can throw up a false positive ELISA test, the most usual HIV test.
These include autoimmune diseases, hepatitis, flu, fungal infections, a history of glandular fever, papilloma virus warts, multiple sclerosis and even previous pregnancies.
The implications of this decision are enormous in terms of the future health of British children and the rights of British parents for self determination over their children’s health.
If a woman tests positive, and the child doesn’t, he nevertheless will be deprived of breastfeeding. If he does test positive, he will be put on AZT alone, a drug mostly discredited in preventing AIDS, or a cocktail. This is likely to include protease inhibitors, the great white hope of AIDS research, which cause a litany of gruesome side effects, including cardiac arrest, irregular fat distribution, diabetes, liver failure and muscle wasting.
Neither AZT nor protease inhibitors have ever been tested in a double blind trial in children, as it it now considered unethical to “deprive” an HIV positive child of drugs.
In America, in one case, an HIV positive mother fought and lost the right to breastfeed her child. Indeed, a guard was placed in her hospital room to make sure she didn’t violate the ruling. After mother and child returned home, a social worker visited every week to ensure she wasn’t breastfeeding and was giving her child AZT. There is every likelihood that legions of “lactation police” could be set loose in Britain and other countries that begin universal testing.
Already in Britain, a healthy HIV positive pregnant mother is fighting for the right not to test her child, lest he be medicalised by the state.
At the moment, Tessa Jowell insists that this test isn’t mandatory. But “strongly advised” measures have a habit of becoming obligatory over time.
It is vital that the future health of our children not rest on the outcome of a single, highly dubious lab test.