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BACKGROUND: Early HIV diagnosis allows combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) initiation in the first days of life following in utero (IU) infection. The impact of early cART initiation on infant viral reservoir size in the setting of high-frequency cART non-adherence is unknown. METHODS: Peripheral blood total HIV DNA from 164 early treated (day 0-21 of life) IU HIV-infected South African infants was measured using droplet digital PCR at birth and following suppressive cART. We evaluated the impact of cART initiation timing on HIV reservoir size and decay, and on the risk of subsequent plasma viraemia in cART-suppressed infants. FINDINGS: Baseline HIV DNA (median 2.8 log10 copies/million PBMC, range 0.7 - 4.8) did not correlate with age at cART initiation (0-21 days) but instead with maternal antenatal cART use. In 98 infants with plasma viral suppression on cART, HIV DNA half-life was 28 days. However, the probability of maintenance of plasma aviraemia was low (0.46 at 12 months) and not influenced by HIV DNA load. Unexpectedly, longer time to viral suppression was associated with protection against subsequent viral rebound. CONCLUSIONS: With effective prophylaxis against mother-to-child transmission, cART initiation timing in the first 3 weeks of life is not critical to reservoir size.

Original publication




Journal article


J Infect Dis

Publication Date



HIV reservoir, digital droplet PCR, early infant diagnosis, early treatment, in utero HIV, paediatric HIV, reservoir decay, viral rebound