Background: Worldwide, the predominant mode of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmission is heterosexual intercourse, but the risk of heterosexual transmission and the effectiveness of measures to prevent it are not well defined.
Methods: We conducted a prospective study of HIV-negative subjects whose only risk of HIV infection was a stable heterosexual relationship with an HIV-infected partner. Every six months the subjects were interviewed, tested for HIV, and counseled about safe sexual practices.
Results: A total of 304 HIV-negative subjects (196 women and 108 men) were followed for an average of 20 months. During the study, 130 couples (42.8 percent) ended their sexual relationships, most often because of the HIV-infected partner's illness or death. Of the 256 couples who continued to have sexual relations for more than three months after enrollment in the study, only 124 (48.4 percent) used condoms consistently for vaginal and anal intercourse. Among these couples, none of the seronegative partners became infected with HIV, despite a total of about 15,000 episodes of intercourse. Among the 121 couples who used condoms inconsistently, the rate of seroconversion was 4.8 per 100 person-years (95 percent confidence interval, 2.5 to 8.4). Eleven couples refused to answer questions about condom use. The risk of transmission increased with advanced stages of HIV infection in the index partners (P < 0.02) and with genital infection in the HIV-negative partners (P < 0.04). Withdrawal to avoid ejaculation in the vagina had a protective effect in uninfected women (P < 0.02).
Conclusions: Consistent use of condoms for heterosexual intercourse is highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV. Among couples not using condoms regularly, the risk of HIV transmission varies widely.