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HIV risk from eating after-birth/placenta

Jun 29, 2011

Hi Dr. Bob,

This question may sound odd/gross -- although some people do engage in this practice after the birth of a child -- would there be any risk of HIV transmission from eating the after-birth/placenta from an HIV positive mother?

Thank you for your time.

Response from Dr. Frascino


Eating the afterbirth/placenta? Ick, I find this topic to be, uh, distasteful!

It is true animals eat their placenta. This is primarily for nutrition and the hormonal content of the tissue. Relatively few humans engage in "placentophagy." The few who advocate this barbaric practice believe chowing down the afterbirth prevents postpartum depression and other post-pregnancy complications. However, there is no sound scientific evidence to support this cannibalistic practice.

From an HIV perspective, there wouldn't be any risk. If a woman is HIV positive and chows down, say, a placenta burrito, there really isn't any additional risk, because she's already positively charged. If an HIV-negative woman decides to snack on her afterbirth in a pot-pie, there would be no HIV risk because she is not HIV infected. I'll post below an article from TIME magazine discussing this topic.

Dr. Bob

Afterbirth: It's What's For Dinner By Joel Stein, TIME, Friday, Jul. 03, 2009

There is so much you can't know about your spouse when you get married, like that one day she will want to eat her placenta. But there are two things you don't argue about with a pregnant woman: what she eats and that being full of life indeed looks sexy. So when Cassandra told me that for $275, a woman would come to our house, cook Cassandra's placenta, freeze-dry it and turn it into capsules to help ward off postpartum depression and increase milk supply, I said, "$275 is a bargain compared with the $20,000 I'll have to spend to tear out our kitchen immediately afterward."

Most mammals, Cassandra explained, eat their placentas, to which I countered that most dogs eat their poop. I stopped arguing there, figuring that like many of Cassandra's hippie ideas the compost bin, rubbing lemon on her underarms instead of deodorant she'd give up on this in a few weeks. Even as the due date approached and she was still set on eating her placenta, I couldn't imagine that she'd remember to request it from the doctor after the most physically draining experience of her life. This is a woman who, 9 times out of 10, forgets the bag of leftovers at the restaurant. (See the top 10 iPhone applications for new moms.)

Though I am exceedingly squeamish, when my son was born, I was shocked that I saw only the beauty of childbirth. Until the placenta came out. There are many normal human reactions to seeing a placenta, ranging from screaming to vomiting to warding it off with a cross. For those of you who have never seen one, the placenta is to the baby what Stephen Baldwin is to Alec Baldwin. It's what your liver would look like if it got into an accident on the autobahn with one of those aliens from Mars Attacks! and their bloody carcasses threw jellyfish at each other.

When the placenta did come out, Cassandra, dazed from 21 hours of labor, somehow made sure the nurses delivered it to us in a flat plastic container, which I put into an ice-filled Monsters vs Aliens cooler I brought. When I asked if I could keep the placenta overnight in the refrigerator out in the hall, the nurses looked at me like I was crazy. When you gross out people who work at a hospital, you have accomplished something.

In a fog, I drove the placenta home, where I wrapped the container in a bag and wrapped that bag in a bag and wrapped that bag in every remaining bag we had in the house. I slept at the hospital that night, grateful that my son will never remember what his parents just did. (See the top 10 iPhone apps for dads.)

The next day I drove back to the house to meet the placenta lady, Sara Pereira. To my surprise, Sara did not look unkempt, frumpy, heavy or in any way like a Wiccan. She got into placenta-cooking after taking a Chinese-medicine course and has already prepared more than two dozen placentas this year and orders are picking up rapidly. When I asked Sara if her parents were embarrassed by what she does, she told me that her father sells bull semen.

By law, Sara has to cook the placenta at the placenta owner's home. But to my great relief, she brought her own equipment, gloves, sponges and even more detergent than I'd hoped, scrubbing constantly as she worked. If I ever kill a man in my own home, I am totally calling the placenta lady. (See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.)

As she steamed the placenta with some herbs, the kitchen got that ironlike smell of cooked organ meat, with vague undertones of a consciousness-raising group and a Betty Friedan rally. Sara said Cassandra had a particularly robust placenta, and she hoped to get 120 pills out of it. As she sliced the cooked organ and put it on parchment paper in a dehydrator, she told me that some people drink the placenta raw as a smoothie. "I do this for a living, and I couldn't do that," she said. The pills, she explained, were superior, since Cassandra could stretch their hormone-rich benefits much further, perhaps even freezing some for menopause. Sara did not understand that when Cassandra's looks fade in her 50s, there's no way I'm putting up with this crap. (Read TIME's 1933 article "Medicine: Protective Placenta.")

I drove back to the hospital where, thanks to my experiences, the food looked good. When we got home the following day, Sara gave us a truly beautiful placentapill presentation: a pretty glass jar, a card, a CD of lullabies and a satin pouch. In which was part of my son's umbilical cord, fashioned into a heart. When I asked Sara what the hell I was supposed to do with that, she said people often use it to keep a baby's first tooth and lock of hair. That's when I realized that placenta-eating is really just the beginning of how gross we humans are. And I went to change my first diaper.

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