Background and methods: A placebo-controlled trial has shown that treatment with zidovudine reduces the rate at which human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) is transmitted from mother to infant. We present data from that trial showing the number of infected infants at 18 months of age and the relation between the maternal viral load, the risk of HIV-1 transmission, and the efficacy of zidovudine treatment. Viral cultures were obtained, and HIV-1 RNA was measured by two assays in samples of maternal blood obtained at study entry and at delivery.
Results: In 402 mother-infant pairs, the rate of transmission of HIV-1 was 7.6 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 4.3 to 12.3 percent) with zidovudine treatment and 22.6 percent (95 percent confidence interval, 17.0 to 29.0 percent) with placebo (P<0.001). In the placebo group, a large viral burden at entry or delivery or a positive culture was associated with an increased risk of transmission (the transmission rate was greater than 40 percent in the highest quartile of the RNA level). In both groups, transmission occurred at a wide range of maternal plasma HIV-1 RNA levels. Zidovudine reduced plasma RNA levels somewhat (median reduction, 0.24 log). Zidovudine was effective regardless of the HIV-1 RNA level or the CD4+ count at entry. In the zidovudine group, however, after we adjusted for the base-line HIV-1 RNA level and CD4+ count, the reduction in viral RNA from base line to delivery was not significantly associated with the risk of transmission of HIV-1.
Conclusions: A high maternal plasma concentration of virus is a risk factor for the transmission of HIV-1 from an untreated mother to her infant. The reduction in such transmission after zidovudine treatment is only partly explained by the reduction in plasma levels of viral RNA. To prevent HIV-1 transmission, initiating maternal treatment with zidovudine is recommended regardless of the plasma level of HIV-1 RNA or the CD4+ count.