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HIV infections in children are characterized by high viral load and, in some perinatally infected newborns, delayed appearance of viral markers. Both phenomena may be related to different levels of immune activation affecting viral replication. This study was designed to investigate the relationship between immune activation and viral replication in pediatric HIV infection, and the role of pre-existent immune activation in facilitating HIV transmission to the fetus/newborn.Plasma levels of soluble L-selectin (s-LS), an immune activation marker, were determined in 100 infants with perinatally transmitted HIV infection, compared with 106 age-matched HIV-exposed uninfected controls. Included in the analysis were samples from 31 HIV-infected (10 PCR+ and 21 PCR−) and 35 uninfected newborns aged < 2 days.To determine s-LS levels, a solid phase ELISA was performed on plasma samples of patients and controls.s-LS levels in uninfected children were higher than those in normal adults. HIV-infected patients had more rapidly increasing values in the first 6 months of life compared with uninfected infants. Plasma s-LS levels correlated with HIV viral loads (r, 0.50). Among newborns in the first 2 days of life, s-LS levels were lowest in those with negative PCR tests, compared with PCR-positive or uninfected infants.These results suggest that higher immune activation in children contributes to higher viral loads, and that the level of pre-existent immune activation may have a role in determining which infants have detectable virus in peripheral blood at birth.