HIV-Infected Woman Sues Oregon for Permission to Breast Feed Her Baby

Aired 17 Feb. 1999 - 2:18 p.m. ET

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Most doctors agree that the anti-AIDS drug AZT can dramatically reduce the risk of mother-to-child HIV infection. The number of infants who acquired HIV from their mothers peaked in the United States in 1992 at about 2,000 cases. That's according to the CDC.

By 1997, the number had fallen 43 percent, and most doctors credit AZT. Of all children in the United States infected with the AIDS virus, the CDC says that 91 percent got it from their mothers during pregnancy, labor and delivery, or breast feeding.

And that brings us to Kathleen Tyson of Eugene, Oregon. She's going to court to win the right to breast feed her infant, even though she is HIV positive.

Here's CNN's Don Knapp.


DON KNAPP, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kathleen Tyson wants desperately to breast feed her baby boy, Felix, but the state of Oregon says it will take Felix from her if she does. The government threatened the action after Tyson tested positive for HIV.

For now, at least, she gives the infant a cows milk formula, and until a few weeks ago, reluctantly gave him a state-ordered, medically prescribed six-week course of the powerful AIDS drug AZT. She faces a court date in April to try to regain total freedom in how she cares for her son, including the right to breast feed.

KATHLEEN TYSON, MOTHER: There is evidence that there is something in breast milk that would inhibit the binding of HIV to receptor cells in the infant. So there is -- we're starting to get an idea that, you know, maybe it's not so bad as everybody thinks.

KNAPP: Tyson and her husband David are at odds with the medical establishment and the medical research showing HIV causes AIDS, nor is the couple convinced by studies that show HIV can be transmitted by breast milk. Are they in denial about the reality of AIDS?

DAVID TYSON, FATHER: I think the medical establishment is in denial about the evidence to indicate that their theory is a dud. They've been working on this for 16 years now, and they've put more resources into this than any other issue that we've had, and they aren't any closer to any mechanism of pathogenicity than they were when they started.

K. TYSON: I think we've weighed the issue, I think we've looked at a lot of material, and I think that we're rational, responsible people. And there's just enough things that for me -- enough things that don't make sense -- that I have to question it.

KNAPP: The Tysons find support on this Internet site, which claims that a growing number of biomedical scientists say the AIDS virus is harmless and not sexually transmitted. Site authors claim it's the anti-viral medications, like AZT, that kill.

D. TYSON: The marketing of HIV through press releases and...

KNAPP: The site helped the Tysons reach David Rasnick, a visiting scientist in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Rasnick is president of a group opposed to prevailing theories on the cause of AIDS. In an e- mail, Rasnick told the Tysons to refuse AZT for their infant son.

DAVID RASNICK, PRESIDENT, GROUP FOR SCIENTIFIC REAPPRAISAL OF HIV/AIDS HYPOTHESIS: We're interfering with healthy mothers and healthy children to breast feed. We're giving these kids poisonous drugs in the chance that they might develop antibodies to HIV.

KNAPP: Rasnick's advice deeply troubles Dr. Paul Lewis, an Oregon children's infectious disease specialist.

DR. PAUL LEWIS, OREGON HEALTH SCIENCES UNIVERSITY: Since I'm one who takes care of children with HIV and have watched children die of AIDS, the idea that someone would allow a preventable disease be transmitted like that absolutely breaks my heart.

KNAPP: Lewis says that while as many as one baby in four born to an infected mother will be infected with HIV, he says the number nearly doubles to four out of 10 if an infected mother breast feeds. Lewis says widely accepted research shows when the infant is not breast fed and AZT treatment is given, such infections can be reduced to as few as one or twoin a hundred.

Why do the Tysons insist on breast feeding and taking a chance with what the medical community calls an unreasonable risk in 1999?

D. TYSON: We have to take responsibility for our health upon ourselves and not rely upon an exterior institution.

KNAPP: Scientists in the mainstream of AIDS research dismiss as renegade researchers those who argue against HIV as the cause of AIDS. The few scientists who do challenge the HIV-AIDS connection look to families like the Tysons to force a fresh debate.

The Tysons, for their part, hope the challenge will help them win the right to breast feed their baby.

Don Knapp, CNN, Eugene, Oregon. (END VIDEOTAPE)

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