Background: Maternal, obstetrical, and infant-related factors associated with the risk of perinatal transmission of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) were identified before the widespread use of zidovudine therapy in pregnant women. The risk factors for transmission when women and infants receive zidovudine are not well characterized. Methods: We examined the effects of maternal, obstetrical, and infant-related characteristics and maternal virologic and immunologic variables on the risk of perinatal transmission of HIV-1 among 480 women and their infants, all of whom received zidovudine. The women and infants were participating in a phase 3 trial of passive immunoprophylaxis for the prevention of perinatal transmission. Results: In univariate analyses, the risk of perinatal transmission was associated with each of the following: decreased maternal CD4+ lymphocyte counts at base line; decreased maternal HIV-1 p24 antibody levels at base line and delivery; increased maternal HIV-1 titer at base line and delivery; increased maternal HIV-1 RNA levels at base line and delivery; and the presence of chorioamnionitis at delivery. In multivariate analyses, the only independent risk factor was the maternal HIV-1 RNA level at base line (odds ratio for transmission, 2.4 per log increase in the number of copies; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.2 to 4.7; P=0.02) and at delivery (odds ratio, 3.4; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.7 to 6.8; P=0.001). There was no perinatal transmission of HIV-1 among the 84 women who had HIV-1 levels below the limit of detection (500 copies per milliliter) at base line or the 107 women who had undetectable levels at delivery. Conclusions: Among pregnant women and their infants, all treated with zidovudine, the maternal plasma HIV-1 RNA level was the best predictor of the risk of perinatal transmission of HIV-1. Antiretroviral therapy that reduces the HIV-1 RNA level to below 500 copies per milliliter appears to minimize the risk of perinatal transmission as well as improve the health of the women.
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