Jeanne Sibiude and colleagues use the French Perinatal Cohort to estimate the prevalence of birth defects in children born to HIV-infected women receiving antiretroviral therapy during pregnancy.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Antiretroviral therapy (ART) has major benefits during pregnancy, both for maternal health and to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Safety issues, including teratogenic risk, need to be evaluated. We estimated the prevalence of birth defects in children born to HIV-infected women receiving ART during pregnancy, and assessed the independent association of birth defects with each antiretroviral (ARV) drug used.
Methods and Findings
The French Perinatal Cohort prospectively enrolls HIV-infected women delivering in 90 centers throughout France. Children are followed by pediatricians until 2 y of age according to national guidelines.
We included 13,124 live births between 1994 and 2010, among which, 42% (n = 5,388) were exposed to ART in the first trimester of pregnancy. Birth defects were studied using both European Surveillance of Congenital Anomalies (EUROCAT) and Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program (MACDP) classifications; associations with ART were evaluated using univariate and multivariate logistic regressions. Correction for multiple comparisons was not performed because the analyses were based on hypotheses emanating from previous findings in the literature and the robustness of the findings of the current study. The prevalence of birth defects was 4.4% (95% CI 4.0%–4.7%), according to the EUROCAT classification. In multivariate analysis adjusting for other ARV drugs, maternal age, geographical origin, intravenous drug use, and type of maternity center, a significant association was found between exposure to zidovudine in the first trimester and congenital heart defects: 2.3% (74/3,267), adjusted odds ratio (AOR) = 2.2 (95% CI 1.3–3.7), p = 0.003, absolute risk difference attributed to zidovudine +1.2% (95% CI +0.5; +1.9%). Didanosine and indinavir were associated with head and neck defects, respectively: 0.5%, AOR = 3.4 (95% CI 1.1–10.4), p = 0.04; 0.9%, AOR = 3.8 (95% CI 1.1–13.8), p = 0.04. We found a significant association between efavirenz and neurological defects (n = 4) using the MACDP classification: AOR = 3.0 (95% CI 1.1–8.5), p = 0.04, absolute risk +0.7% (95% CI +0.07%; +1.3%). But the association was not significant using the less inclusive EUROCAT classification: AOR = 2.1 (95% CI 0.7–5.9), p = 0.16. No association was found between birth defects and lopinavir or ritonavir with a power >85% for an odds ratio of 1.5, nor for nevirapine, tenofovir, stavudine, or abacavir with a power >70%. Limitations of the present study were the absence of data on termination of pregnancy, stillbirths, tobacco and alcohol intake, and concomitant medication.
We found a specific association between in utero exposure to zidovudine and heart defects; the mechanisms need to be elucidated. The association between efavirenz and neurological defects must be interpreted with caution. For the other drugs not associated with birth defects, the results were reassuring. Finally, whatever the impact that some ARV drugs may have on birth defects, it is surpassed by the major role of ART in the successful prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
AIDS and HIV infection are commonly treated with antiretroviral therapy (ART), a combination of individual drugs that work together to prevent the replication of the virus and further spread of the infection. Starting in the 1990s, studies have shown that ART of HIV-infected women can substantially reduce transmission of the virus to the child during pregnancy and birth. Based on these results, ART was subsequently recommended for pregnant women. Since 2004, ART has been standard therapy for pregnant women with HIV/AIDS in high-income countries, and it is now recommended for all HIV-infected women worldwide. Several different antiviral drug combinations have been shown to be effective and are used to prevent mother-to-infant transmission. However, as with any other drugs taken during pregnancy, there is concern that ART can harm the developing fetus.
Why Was This Study Done?
Several previous studies have assessed the risk that ART taken by a pregnant woman might pose to her developing fetus, but the results have been inconsistent. Animal studies suggested an elevated risk for some drugs but not others. While some clinical studies have reported increases in birth defects in children born to mothers on ART, others have shown no such increase.
The discrepancy may be due to differences between the populations included in the studies and the different methods used to diagnose birth defects. Additional large studies are therefore necessary to obtain more and better evidence on the potential harm of individual anti-HIV drugs to children exposed during pregnancy. So in this study, the authors conducted a large cohort study in France to assess the relationship between different antiretroviral drugs and specific birth defects.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used a large national health database known as the French Perinatal Cohort that contains information on HIV-infected mothers who delivered infants in 90 centers throughout France. Pediatricians follow all children, whatever their HIV status, to two years of age, and health statistics are collected according to national health-care guidelines. Analyzing the records, the researchers estimated the rate at which birth defects occurred in children exposed to antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy.
The researchers included 13,124 children who were born alive between 1994 and 2010 and had been exposed to ART during pregnancy. Children exposed in the first trimester of pregnancy, and those exposed during the second or third trimester, were compared to a control group (children not exposed to the drug during the whole pregnancy). Using two birth defect classification systems (EUROCAT and MACDP—MACDP collects more details on disease classification than EUROCAT), the researchers sought to detect a link between the occurrence of birth defects and exposure to individual antiretroviral drugs.
They found a small increase in the risk for heart defects in children with exposure to zidovudine. They also found an association between efavirenz exposure and a small increase in neurological defects, but only when using the MACDP classification system. The authors found no association between other antiretroviral drugs, including nevirapine (acting similar to efavirenz); tenofovir, stavudine, and abacavir (all three acting similar to zidovudine); and lopinavir and ritonavir (proteinase inhibitors) and any type of birth defect.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that, overall, the risks of birth defects in children exposed to antiretroviral drugs in utero are small when considering the clear benefit of preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. However, where there are safe and effective alternatives, it might be appropriate to avoid use by pregnant women of those drugs that are associated with elevated risks of birth defects.
Worldwide, a large number of children are exposed to zidovudine in utero, and these results suggest (though cannot prove) that these children may be at a slightly higher risk of heart defects. Current World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission no longer recommend zidovudine for first-line therapy.
The implications of the higher rate of neurological birth defects observed in infants exposed to efavirenz in the first trimester are less clear. The EUROCAT classification excludes minor neurological abnormalities without serious medical consequences, and so the WHO guidelines that stress the importance of careful clinical follow-up of children with exposure to efavirenz seem adequate, based on the findings of this study. The study is limited by the lack of data on the use of additional medication and alcohol and tobacco use, which could have a direct impact on fetal development, and by the absence of data on birth defects and antiretroviral drug exposure from low-income countries. However, the findings of this study overall are reassuring and suggest that apart from zidovudine and possibly efavirenz, other antiretroviral drugs are not associated with birth defects, and their use during pregnancy does not pose a risk to the infant.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001635.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Mofenson and Watts
The World Health Organization has a webpage on mother-to-child transmission of HIV
The US National Institutes of Health provides links to additional information on mother-to-child transmission of HIV
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation also has a webpage on mother-to-child transmission
The French Perinatal Cohort has a webpage describing the cohort and its main publications (in French, with a summary in English)