A multicountry cohort study in sub-Saharan Africa by Landon Myer and colleagues reveals higher pregnancy rates in HIV-infected women on antiretroviral therapy (ART).
With the rapid expansion of antiretroviral therapy (ART) services in sub-Saharan Africa there is growing recognition of the importance of fertility and childbearing among HIV-infected women. However there are few data on whether ART initiation influences pregnancy rates.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed data from the Mother-to-Child Transmission-Plus (MTCT-Plus) Initiative, a multicountry HIV care and treatment program for women, children, and families. From 11 programs in seven African countries, women were enrolled into care regardless of HIV disease stage and followed at regular intervals; ART was initiated according to national guidelines on the basis of immunological and/or clinical criteria. Standardized forms were used to collect sociodemographic and clinical data, including incident pregnancies. Overall 589 incident pregnancies were observed among the 4,531 women included in this analysis (pregnancy incidence, 7.8/100 person-years [PY]). The rate of new pregnancies was significantly higher among women receiving ART (9.0/100 PY) compared to women not on ART (6.5/100 PY) (adjusted hazard ratio, 1.74; 95% confidence interval, 1.19–2.54). Other factors independently associated with increased risk of incident pregnancy included younger age, lower educational attainment, being married or cohabiting, having a male partner enrolled into the program, failure to use nonbarrier contraception, and higher CD4 cell counts.
ART use is associated with significantly higher pregnancy rates among HIV-infected women in sub-Saharan Africa. While the possible behavioral or biomedical mechanisms that may underlie this association require further investigation, these data highlight the importance of pregnancy planning and management as a critical but neglected component of HIV care and treatment services.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which is a major global cause of disease and death. More than 33 million people around the world are infected with HIV, with nearly 5,500 dying daily from HIV and AIDS-related complications. HIV/AIDS is especially problematic in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is the leading cause of death. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but medicines known as “antiretroviral therapy” (ART) can prolong life and reduce complications in patients infected with HIV. 97% of patients with HIV/AIDS live in low- and middle-income countries. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 10 million of these patients need ART. As patients' access to treatment is often hindered by the high cost and low availability of ART, global health efforts have focused on promoting ART use in resource-limited nations. Such efforts also increase awareness of how HIV is spread (contact with blood or semen, in sexual intercourse, sharing needles, or from mother to child during childbirth). ART reduces, but does not remove, the chance of a mother's passing HIV to her child during birth.
Why Was This Study Done?
By the end of 2007, 3 million HIV-infected patients in poor countries were receiving ART. Many of those treated with ART are young women of child-bearing age. Childbirth is an important means of spreading HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, where 60% of all HIV patients are women. This study questions whether the improved health and life expectancy that results from treatment with ART affects pregnancy rates of HIV-infected patients. The study explores this question in seven African countries, by examining the rates of pregnancy in HIV-infected women before and after they started ART.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The authors looked at the records of 4,531 HIV-infected women enrolled in the Mother-to-Child-Transmission-Plus (MTCT-Plus) Initiative in seven African countries. MTCT -Plus, begun in 2002, is a family-centered treatment program that offers regular checkups, blood tests, counseling, and ART treatment (if appropriate) to women and their families. At each checkup, women's CD4+ cell counts and World Health Organization guidelines were used to determine their eligibility for starting ART. Over a 4-year period, nearly a third of the women starting ART experienced a pregnancy: 244 pregnancies occurred in the “pre-ART” group (women not receiving ART) compared to 345 pregnancies in the “on-ART” group (women receiving ART). The chance of pregnancy increased over time in the on-ART group to almost 80% greater than the pre-ART group, while remaining relatively low and constant in the pre-ART group. The authors noted that, as expected, other factors also increased the chances of pregnancy, including younger age, lower educational status, and use of nonbarrier contraception such as injectable hormones.
What Do These Findings Mean?
This study suggests that starting ART is associated with higher pregnancy rates in sub-Saharan Africa, nearly doubling the chances of a woman becoming pregnant. The reasons for this link are unclear. One possible explanation is behavioral: women receiving ART may feel more motivated to have children as their health and quality of life improve. However, the study did not examine how pregnancy desires and sexual activity of women changed while on ART, and cannot discern why ART is linked to increased pregnancy. By using pregnancy data gathered from patient questionnaires rather than laboratory tests, the study is limited by the possibility of inaccurate patient reporting. Understanding how pregnancy rates vary in HIV-infected women receiving ART helps support the formation of responsive, effective HIV programs. Female HIV patients of child-bearing age, who form the majority of patients receiving ART in sub-Saharan Africa, would benefit from programs that combine starting HIV treatment with ART with education and contraception counseling and pregnancy-related care.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000229.
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
HIV InSite has comprehensive information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including a list of articles and other sources of information about the primary care of adolescents with HIV
A UNAIDS 2008 report is available on the global AIDS epidemic
The International Planned Parenthood Foundation provides information on sexual and reproductive health and HIV
The International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public health provides information to assist HIV care and treatment programs in resource-limited settings