On Sunday, March 3rd, the BBC News published a report claiming that a baby girl in the United States, who had been born HIV-positive, was cured after an intense treatment regimen.
Although more testing needs to be done, the baby girl, now two-and-a-half, is no longer on medication and reportedly infection-free for over a year. This is after she was placed on “a cocktail of widely available drugs” called antiretrovirals, which are already used to treat HIV. In this child’s case, however, because her mother was HIV-positive and had not received special prenatal care (increasing the risk of passing infection from mother to child), doctors at the University of Mississippi Medical Center placed the baby girl on three different antiretrovirals when she was just thirty hours old — even before lab tests confirmed she was positive for HIV. This decision was made by Dr. Hannah Gay, who stated, “I just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk and deserved our best shot.”
After staying on medication for eighteen months, the girl “disappeared” from the medical system and was taken off the medication. She reappeared five months later with no signs of the virus of other HIV-related infections.
If these results, presented by Dr. Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, are confirmed through further testing, this will be the second reported recovery from HIV. The first instance was in 2007, when Timothy Ray Brown underwent intensive treatment for leukemia “that involved the destruction of the immune system and a stem-cell transplant from an individual with a rare genetic mutation that resists HIV infection.”
Furthermore, if these results are confirmed and the child truly is no longer HIV-positive, this could mean a radical new system of treatment for HIV-positive infants. According to UNICEF, over 2.1 million children around the world are HIV-positive and over 370,000 children become infected each year. Dr. Persaud’s results suggest that the “swift treatment wiped out HIV before it could form hideouts” in the Mississippi girl’s body and if these results are confirmed, the treatment could possibly be replicated with other infants and real, tangible, headway could be made towards UNICEF’s goal to achieve an AIDS-free generation by 2015.
Obviously, this research inspires optimism, wrote fellow BBC reporter James Gallagher who responded with a follow-up article today, because it offers the possibility of an escape from “a lifetime of medication, social stigma, and worries about whether to tell friends and family.” However, he warns, this most recent case may not bring scientists any closer to a universal cure for HIV. This is because there are still mysteries and uncertainties related to babies immune systems because they receive much of their protection through their mother’s breast milk. Gallagher also implores people to realize that this cure may not be transferrable to all infants, let alone all adults suffering from HIV/AIDS. Instead, he advocates that “HIV really is an infection where prevention is much easier than cure” because of the complexities of the virus itself and the relatively easy ways at preventing the virus’s transferral.
According to the World Health Organization, HIV/AIDS has claimed the lives of over 25 million people in the past thirty years. Although many people with HIV can lead relatively normal lives if they have access to drugs and adequate treatment plans, nearly 70% of people living with HIV/AIDS live in Sub-Saharan Africa where access to drugs is limited.
Although the results of this U.S. case are still unconfirmed and there is no guarantee that the results can be replicated in other patients, the little girl’s recovery brings new hope to people suffering from HIV/AIDS and can potentially enable doctors and scientists to gain new insights into the complexities of the disease, as well as empower them to continue the fight for a cure — something thought impossible just thirty years ago.