Background and methods: We examined the influence of viral load in relation to other risk factors for the heterosexual transmission of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1). In a community-based study of 15,127 persons in a rural district of Uganda, we identified 415 couples in which one partner was HIV-1-positive and one was initially HIV-1-negative and followed them prospectively for up to 30 months. The incidence of HIV-1 infection per 100 person-years among the initially seronegative partners was examined in relation to behavioral and biologic variables.
Results: The male partner was HIV-1-positive in 228 couples, and the female partner was HIV-1-positive in 187 couples. Ninety of the 415 initially HIV-1-negative partners seroconverted (incidence, 11.8 per 100 person-years). The rate of male-to-female transmission was not significantly different from the rate of female-to-male transmission (12.0 per 100 person-years vs. 11.6 per 100 person-years). The incidence of seroconversion was highest among the partners who were 15 to 19 years of age (15.3 per 100 person-years). The incidence was 16.7 per 100 person-years among 137 uncircumcised male partners, whereas there were no seroconversions among the 50 circumcised male partners (P<0.001). The mean serum HIV-1 RNA level was significantly higher among HIV-1-positive subjects whose partners seroconverted than among those whose partners did not seroconvert (90,254 copies per milliliter vs. 38,029 copies per milliliter, P=0.01). There were no instances of transmission among the 51 subjects with serum HIV-1 RNA levels of less than 1500 copies per milliliter; there was a significant dose-response relation of increased transmission with increasing viral load. In multivariate analyses of log-transformed HIV-1 RNA levels, each log increment in the viral load was associated with a rate ratio of 2.45 for seroconversion (95 percent confidence interval, 1.85 to 3.26).
Conclusions: The viral load is the chief predictor of the risk of heterosexual transmission of HIV-1, and transmission is rare among persons with levels of less than 1500 copies of HIV-1 RNA per milliliter.