Maternal HIV-1 viral load and vertical transmission of infection: the Ariel Project for the prevention of HIV transmission from mother to infant

Nat Med. 1997 May;3(5):549-52. doi: 10.1038/nm0597-549.


Most HIV-1 infections of children result from mother-to-infant transmission, which may occur perinatally or postnatally, as a consequence of breast feeding. In this study, the influence of maternal viral load on transmission of infection to infants from non-breast-feeding mothers was examined using samples of plasma and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) collected at several time points during pregnancy and the 6-month period after delivery. These samples were analyzed by several quantitative methods, including virus cultures of PBMCs and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays for HIV-1 RNA in plasma and DNA in PBMCs. The risk of transmission increased slightly with a higher viral load, but transmission and nontransmission occurred over the entire range of values for each assay. No threshold value of virus load was identified which discriminated between transmitters and nontransmitters. We also noted a significant rise in viral load and a decline in CD4+ lymphocytes in the six months after delivery. These findings suggest that a high maternal viral load is insufficient to fully explain vertical transmission of HIV-1. Additional studies are needed to examine the post-partum increase in viremia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-HIV Agents / therapeutic use
  • CD4 Lymphocyte Count
  • Cohort Studies
  • DNA, Viral / blood
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • HIV Infections / immunology
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • HIV Infections / transmission*
  • HIV-1*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Vertical
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / drug therapy
  • RNA, Viral / blood
  • Twins
  • Viral Load*
  • Zidovudine / therapeutic use


  • Anti-HIV Agents
  • DNA, Viral
  • RNA, Viral
  • Zidovudine