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close this bookHIV and Infant Feeding - Review of HIV Transmission Through Breastfeeding Jointly Issued by UNICEF, UNAIDS and WHO Guidelines - Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (UNAIDS, 1998, 26 p.)
close this folderMother-to-child transmission
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View the documentHIV infection in women
View the documentRates of mother-to-child transmission

Rates of mother-to-child transmission

Estimates of the rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in cohorts of women who have not received any preventive treatment (such as antiretrovirals) range from 15-25% in industrialized countries to 25-45% in developing countries (Msellati et al., 1995). The highest rates of MTCT have been found in women in Africa (Kind et al., 1998; Maguire et al., 1997; Ometto et al., 1995; Lallemant, Le Coeur et al., 1994; Roques et al., 1993; European Collaborative Study, 1992; Blanche et al., 1989).

Differences in study methods, the composition of the populations studied, and the prevalence of co-factors of transmission may explain some of these differences. However, it is likely that much of the increased rate of transmission seen in women in sub-Saharan Africa is associated with breastfeeding,1 where many women breastfeed for about 2 years (The Working Group on Mother-to-Child Transmission, 1995; Ryder and Behets, 1994; Dabis et al., 1993).

1 Many women who breastfeed do not breastfeed exclusively. Other fluids (juices, milks, teas) and foods may also be given to the infant. In many studies looking at HIV transmission and breastfeeding no differentiation is made between women who "exclusively" or "partially" breastfeed. In this document, unless otherwise stated, "breastfeeding women" will often include both women who "exclusively" or "partially" breastfeed.

In an attempt to quantify the relative contribution of intrauterine and intrapartum transmission of HIV in non-breastfed infants, a working definition of timing has been proposed (Bryson et al., 1992).

In utero infection. In this, a child is classified as having been infected during pregnancy (in utero) if HIV-1 genome is detected within 48 hours of delivery by polymerase chain-reaction test (DNA-PCR) or viral culture.

Intrapartum infection. Acquisition of infection is assumed to have occurred during delivery (intrapartum) if these diagnostic tests were negative in a sample taken during the first 48 hours after delivery, but became positive in subsequent samples taken within 7-90 days of delivery.

Following this classification, a French study estimated that of the infants infected with HIV, 35% of the non-breastfed infants studied were infected before birth and 65% were infected late in pregnancy or during delivery (Rouzioux et al., 1995). A recent review indicated that in women who did not breastfeed their infants, about one-third of MTCT infection was acquired during the intrauterine period. In women who did breastfeed their infants, less than a quarter of all MTCT was acquired during the intrauterine period (Newell, 1998).

Table 1. Percentage HIV infection acquired by different routes *

Partially breastfed/breastfed infants

Non-breastfed infants

During intrauterine period



During delivery



Postpartum, by breastfeeding



*These rates are observed in the absence of interventions to reduce MTCT