Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that kills the cells comprising the immune system. The more these cells are killed, the harder it is for the body to fight infection. When enough of these cells are killed, HIV infection causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), with the affected person eventually dying from overwhelming infection.
HIV can be transmitted via the blood, vaginal secretions, semen, anal secretions and breast milk. Mothers infected with HIV can transmit the virus to their children before the child is born, during the birthing process and after the child is born via breast milk.
This mother-to-infant trans- mission of HIV can be as high as 40%. In 1991, the rate of mother-to-baby HIV transmission peaked to 1,650 newborns becoming infected with HIV.
Research showed that the use of Zidovudine, an antiret- roviral medication, given to mothers during pregnancy and to their infants after birth decreased this rate of transmission by up to two-thirds.
Additional research showed that combinations of an- tiretroviral medications could reduce the transmission rate even more, to less than 2%.
In the United States using combinations of anti-retro- virals is now standard in pregnancy and around the time of birth, leading to a decrease in the rate of moth- er-to-infant HIV transmission of more than 90%.
Currently, fewer than 200 babies become infected with HIV in the United States each year, even though more women with HIV than ever before are giving birth. Re- search has also led to a reduction in infant HIV infection worldwide with a goal for elimination in 2015.
HIV, research was critical in this dramatic reduction in HIV transmission. Other research initiatives have led to increased life expectancy for persons – including children - who are HIV-infected.