Treatment of HIV infection in pregnant women: antiretroviral management options

Drugs. 2004;64(5):471-88. doi: 10.2165/00003495-200464050-00002.


Increasing rates of HIV infection in women worldwide, especially among those of childbearing age, reinforce the importance of understanding the management of HIV in pregnancy. Over the past decade, significant advances have been made in the prevention of vertical HIV transmission, including the use of single and combination antiretroviral therapy, elective caesarean section as the preferred mode of delivery and the elimination of breast feeding. Multiple clinical trials assessing antiretroviral therapy in pregnancy have been carried out worldwide. The first pivotal clinical trial, the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) 076 study, was conducted in 1994 using a three-part zidovudine regimen. Despite the success of this regimen at decreasing rates of vertical transmission, it is not affordable in many developing countries. Consequently, many international clinical trials have concentrated on short-course antiretroviral regimens including zidovudine alone, zidovudine and lamivudine, and nevirapine alone. In the developed world, the management of nonpregnant HIV-infected individuals has also undergone significant advances and has implications for the management of HIV in pregnancy. A number of countries have participated in the development of guidelines for the management of HIV in pregnancy, which recommend that HIV-infected pregnant women should be offered combination antiretroviral therapy based on viral load and CD4+ cell count cut-offs used for individuals who are not pregnant, preferably with the inclusion of zidovudine. However, to maximise the benefits to their offspring, therapy is recommended at lower viral load thresholds than for nonpregnant adults. For antiretroviral-naive women, therapy is deferred until the second trimester because of the potential and uncertain risk of teratogenesis and the low risk of transmission during this period. Research has also found that maternal factors including viral load, immune status, chorioamnionitis, prematurely ruptured membranes and, to a lesser extent, intravenous drug use and smoking are associated with increased vertical transmission. These represent potentially modifiable risk factors that should be addressed before and throughout pregnancy. Despite the benefits of antiretroviral therapy to reduce HIV vertical transmission, its use can be complicated by known and unknown risks of toxicity to the mother, fetus or both as well as carrying the risk of developing drug-resistant virus. The latter can potentially compromise future treatment options for both the mother and child. Other important challenges include the use of antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy when the mother does not meet criteria for them for her own health, and balancing the relative risks and benefits of elective caesarean section at various degrees of viral load suppression. Clinicians managing HIV in pregnancy need to keep up to date with all the literature to provide optimal care, including counselling to allow mothers to balance the risks and benefits while deciding on treatment for both themselves and their children.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-HIV Agents / adverse effects
  • Anti-HIV Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnant Women*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Anti-HIV Agents