OBJECTIVE: The present literature review aims to highlight gaps in the treatment of preventative mother-to-child HIV transmission and the risk factors in Brazil. METHODS: Among the 425 articles identified in SciELO and PubMed searches, 59 articles published between 1994 and 2016 were selected for reading and data extraction, and 33 articles were included in the present review. RESULTS: The rates of vertical HIV transmission described in the studies varied widely, from 1.8% to 27.8%, with a significant reduction over the years. However, recent rates were also found to be variable in different regions of Brazil, and despite the significant reduction in mother-to-child transmission, many gaps remain in prevention services. A failure to attend prenatal care is the main factor associated with the increased risk of vertical transmission of HIV, hindering early maternal diagnosis and the completion of preventative measures during the prenatal period and, often, the peripartum and postnatal periods. A small number of studies discussed the sociodemographic factors, including a low level of education for pregnant women and the inadequacies of health services, such as difficulties scheduling appointments and undertrained staff, associated with vertical transmission. As such, the current challenge is to better define the sociodemographic and infrastructural factors that increase the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV to provide the necessary investments to promote an earlier inclusion of these populations in prevention services. CONCLUSIONS: This review may serve as a guide for future programs to focus efforts on the prevention of vertical HIV transmission.