On Sunday, doctors announced they have apparently cured a two-and-a-half child of an HIV infection, marking the first time that medical professionals have successfully eliminated the virus in a child’s system.
The baby was born in rural Mississippi to an HIV-positive mother who was unaware she had the virus. Within the first 30 hours of her life, doctors began treating the child for the virus without waiting for the test results to confirm that the baby girl was HIV-positive. The doctors believe that their early intervention — as well as their decision to use an aggressive three-drug treatment, rather than the two-drug regimen typically used to treat babies — contributed to the fact that the child tested negative for HIV after about a year and a half. The baby hasn’t required HIV drugs for the past year, and doctors believe she is “functionally cured.”
The report has yet to be confirmed, and outside experts are waiting for the researchers to publish their full findings to verify all of the details. Scientists caution that the young girl’s story is unique, and her cure won’t immediately signal a cure for the 34 million people living with HIV worldwide. The type of treatment that eliminated the virus in this child may not actually be relevant for HIV-positive adults — especially since largely successful drug therapies already help prevent mothers from passing the virus onto their child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding.
But although infected mothers in the U.S. can typically receive that type of preventative treatment, ensuring mother-to-child HIV transmission now only rarely occurs in this country, that’s not true everywhere — particularly in developing nations, where women may not have access to prenatal care. Globally, the UN estimates that about 330,000 babies were newly infected with the virus in 2011. That’s why researchers are hailing the case as a potential breakthrough for developing nations, especially if doctors around the world begin administering more aggressive treatments to babies as a standard practice.
According to Rowena Johnston, the vice president and director of research at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, this case “underscores the importance of identifying HIV-positive pregnant women.” Doctors need to be focused on expanding access for treatment to pregnant women around the world, and be willing to immediately put infants on medication, she explained.
“It is also imperative that we learn more about a newborn’s immune system, how it differs from an adult’s, and what factors made it possible for the child to be cured,” Johnston told USA Today in a statement.