SEATTLE, Washington — Roughly 40% of children under the age of 14 in Tanzania who are Human Immunodeficiency Virus positive (HIV+) contract the disease through breastfeeding. The “Kifua Pampu” team at Clemson University created a breast pump that deactivates HIV transmission between mother and child in low-resource communities. This breast pump works manually and electrically, in order to make it more accessible. It also eliminates certain bacteria that cause milk to spoil. Kifua Pampu’s breast pump prevents HIV transmission through breast milk and will help remote, low-resource communities significantly reduce the chance of children developing HIV.
Problem: HIV+ Mothers Can Transmit HIV Through Breastfeeding
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. Delphine Dean stated that breast bumps are often perceived as a “luxury” good. Dr. Dean is a Ron and Jane Lindsay Family Innovation Professor in the Bioengineering Department at Clemson and the main advisor of the Kifua Pampu team. Pumps are, therefore, rarely available and not used extensively in rural, low-income communities. Maggie Elpers is one of the team members and a recent Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering graduate from Clemson. She told The Borgen Project that HIV+ mothers lack access to HIV medicine, which should be more widely available. Consequently, HIV+ mothers in low-resource communities have few options left. Dr. Dean states that the options for these mothers are to breastfeed their babies and risk transmitting HIV or to let them go hungry, both of which are dangerous and potentially lethal choices.
Another issue mothers face is the confusion that exists among healthcare workers regarding the proper feeding procedure for HIV+ mothers. HIV+ mothers in low-income regions are therefore inaccurately advised to use formula milk to feed infants, instead of breastfeeding. Babies need to be breastfed for at least the first six months. This provides nutrients for optimal development and antibodies that protect babies against “common, but deadly diseases.”
Using Formula: Not a Viable Solution
When babies drink formula milk, their immune systems lack the nutrients and antibodies needed to develop properly. Therefore, these infants are more likely to die from factors unrelated to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). In fact, a study published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) finds that infants who are fed formula milk in sub-Saharan Africa are 1.8 to 2.6 times more likely to die post perinatally as compared to exclusively breastfed babies.
There is evidence that a combination of antiretroviral treatment and exclusive breastfeeding can decrease HIV transmission between mother and child to just 1.8%, as antiretroviral treatment can stifle the HIV in the mother’s blood to “undetectable levels.” However, only 66% of HIV+ mothers have access to receiving antiretroviral treatment, which leaves the remainder vulnerable to HIV transmission.
Solution and Impact: Kifua Pampu’s Breast Pump
Kifua Pampu has developed a low-cost breast pump that can help HIV+ mothers “discreetly scrub” HIV from their breast milk. Alex Harrison is another member of the team, who received her Masters from Clemson in Engineering, Bioengineering and Medical Engineering in 2019. Harrison told The Borgen Project that the pump is robust, can be easily cleaned and is designed to last for six months. This works out since that is the recommended time for mothers to breastfeed. Harrison also said that “it is a pump that anyone can use.” That is because the filter also kills the microbial bacteria in milk, which decreases the risk of it getting spoilt. Furthermore, it reduces the social stigma associated with HIV+ women, Elper stated.
Harrison and her team aim to use a filter, currently designed with a “woven polymer” into a “knitted polymer” material, with silver nanoparticles that are absorbed into the polymer surface. The silver deactivates the virus once it is exposed to the milk. Also, adapting the specific shape of the polymer will still allow useful proteins to pass through, Harrison said. This will let infants absorb necessary nutrients from the milk without risking any infections or diseases. Furthermore, the pump is more accessible to mothers because it can be used manually or electrically. This means that mothers who do not have access to electricity in remote, off-grid communities can also use the pump. In addition to inactivating HIV and warding off any social stigma attached to having HIV, Kifua Pampu’s pump can empower women to strive for a work-life beyond their household and child care responsibilities.
Looking to the Future
In October 2019, the Kifua Pampu team won 2nd place in the Engineering World Health (EWH) Design Competition, which aimed to design medical technology that benefits low-resource settings. Due to COVID-19, the pump’s manufacturing and distribution have been paused. Elpers told The Borgen Project that the future plan is to partner with a nonprofit or a mission group that works directly with mothers in Tanzania in order to distribute the pump and educate mothers about the advantages of using it and how the breast pump reduces HIV transmission. After launching the pump in Tanzania, the plan is to distribute it to other low-resource areas around the world.
Kifua Pampu’s breast pump reduces HIV transmission between HIV+ mothers and their infants in low-resource communities while preventing malnourishment. The breast pump has the potential to significantly decrease HIV transmission from mother to child through breastfeeding, in low-resource regions, globally.
– Natasha Nath