In a nested case-control study, postnatal HIV infection was strongly associated with cumulative HIV RNA breastmilk exposure, even after allowing for maternal CD4 and plasma viral load; cases ingested approximately 15 times more HIV-1 RNA particles than controls.
Background. We quantified the relationship between human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) RNA shedding in breast milk, cumulative RNA exposure, and postnatal transmission, relating timing of infection in the infant to estimated total volume of milk exposure.
Methods. Nested case-control study of 36 infants of HIV-infected mothers. Case patients were infants who acquired HIV infection through breastfeeding from age 6 through 28 weeks, and control subjects were uninfected infants matched on age at obtainment of a breast milk sample. Mothers and infants received peripartum single-dose nevirapine prophylaxis. Feeding data were collected daily; breast milk samples were collected and infant anthropometry was performed at 6 weeks and monthly thereafter. Volume of milk ingested was estimated using infant weight and feeding pattern.
Results. Before HIV acquisition in case patients, feeding pattern (exclusive breastfeeding; median duration, 65 vs 70 days; P = .6) and daily milk intake (mean volume, 638 vs 637 mL; P = .97) did not differ significantly between case patients and control subjects. Case mothers were more likely to shed virus (64% vs 9% always, 22% vs 20.5% intermittently, 14% vs 70.5% never shed; overall, P < .001). Case patients ingested ∼15 times more HIV-1 RNA particles than did control subjects (196.5 vs 13 × 106 copies; P < .001). Allowing for maternal antenatal CD4 cell count and plasma HIV-1 load, child sex and duration of mixed breastfeeding, the association between HIV RNA exposure and infection remained statistically significant (P < .001).
Conclusions. Postnatal acquisition of HIV-1 is more strongly associated with cumulative exposure to cell-free particles in breast milk than with feeding mode. Reducing breast milk viral load through antiretroviral therapy to mother or child can further decrease postnatal transmission in exclusively breastfed infants.