Objectives: To evaluate the determinants of HIV-1 RNA shedding in cervicovaginal secretions and the effects of antiretroviral therapy in a group of infected women.
Methods: A total of 122 women from whom paired peripheral blood and cervicovaginal lavage samples were available were enrolled in the study. HIV-1 RNA was quantified in the plasma and cell-free fraction of cervicovaginal lavages by the nucleic acid sequence-based amplification assay (lower limit of detection 80 copies/ml).
Results: Seventy-one per cent of the women had detectable viral load in the cervicovaginal lavage and this appeared to be correlated to plasma viral load and to the degree of immunodeficiency as expressed by the absolute number of CD4 cells. Antiretroviral-treated patients had a lower risk of shedding the virus in the genital tract, but this association was limited to patients treated with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). However, in 25% of women with undetectable plasma viral load, a genital shedding of the virus was demonstrated.
Conclusion: Plasma viral load may fail as a marker of infectivity of genital secretions. HAART treatment seems to be more efficacious in suppressing viral shedding at the genital level. The female genital tract represents a distinct compartment for HIV-1 replication/evolution.
From the Clinic of Infectious Diseases, University of Bari, the aLaboratory of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, National Institute of Health, Roma, the bClinic of Infectious Diseases, University of Foggia and the cFirst Obstetric and Gynaecological Clinic, University of Bari, Italy.
Correspondence to J. R. Fiore, Clinic of Infectious Diseases, University of Bari, Policlinico Hospital, Piazza Giulio Cesare 11, 70124 Bari, Italy.
Received: 4 October 2002; revised: 17 April 2003; accepted: 7 May 2003.