Born infected with HIV, a baby’s chances are getting better by the day. It is not a death sentence as it once was, at least not in the developed world. We have however come one step closer to a world without AIDS. The first baby seen as “cured” is actually not cured per say. However, with no detectable bit of the virus in her blood after several months OFF drugs, doctors are so close they can feel it in their hands.
This baby, who will remain anonymous, was treated early, from day 1. Her mother was diagnosed when it was already too late, and though both were given preventative drugs, it did not stop the virus. However, she was given doses that are usually reserved for much more advanced cases in infancy. Her circumstance has led researchers to question how early treatment should be given and how much.
Referring to it as a “functional cure”, Dr Deborah Persaud of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, the leading virologist in the study, believes it to be real hope. Persaud describes this as a situation where the virus is still there, but it isn’t able to do more damage at this point in time. In other words, it’s benign, at least for the time being. This particular infant was treated within 48 hours of infection.
This child is now 2 1/2 years old, living in rural Mississippi, and as far as anyone can tell, she is healthy. Born slightly premature, she initially stayed in the hospital and was tested within 30 hours of birth. She was retested and clearly had HIV. The high doses of drugs generally given to more advanced patients seemed to work well, making virus levels undetectable. In other words, the virus isn’t necessarily gone (again). It just isn’t able to spread and hurt the body specifically damaging the immune system.
This baby was given regular care up until she was 15 months old at the University of Mississippi Medical Center with Dr. Hannah Gay. Then she simply disappeared, as many do, from the medical offices. She was back at the hospital briefly at 18 months, but her treatment was by no means consistent after that. She missed 8 total months worth of important treatments. Despite having no treatment, when Dr. Gay found the 2, the baby had no symptoms or issues.
At first, she thought
Oh my goodness. We have been treating an uninfected child. But I checked the records which confirmed she was, in fact, infected.
Doctors conducted multiple tests, including PCR, which is more sensitive. They could not find any evidence of the virus being there or active. At this point, all they can do is watch and wait and hope the prognosis stays positive. The baby is currently still off treatment.
34 million suffer from HIV, 25 million have died ultimately from other diseases strengthened by no immune protection. There are no vaccines that are effective, and many drug cocktails are expensive and harsh on the body. Antiretroviral therapy is getting better, but it can never cure the patients. The virus is still there and will become active if treatment stops. Scientists and doctors would ideally like to actually get rid of the virus once and for all. If this case proves more telling, Persaud hopes to take it further, even saving children who haven’t even been born from a lifetime of harsh and expensive treatments, not to mention stigma.
This is of course just one case. There was also a case of a man who received a bone marrow transplant and seems to be functionally cured. More research definitely needs to be done before doctors can introduce any kind of “cure” for the young or old to the world. Babies present the best hope for research as doctors can generally tell within hours of when they are actually infected, treating early. Some doctors even believe they could prevent 95% of infections over time. This is still to be tested though.
Note: The previously described “cure” was that of Berlin based patient, Timothy Brown. He was specifically given a bone marrow transplant from a donor who was proven to be immune to HIV. It is a rare and prized genetic mutation. He has been virus free for over 5 years now, and they theorize that his infected cells were replaced with the healthy and resistant cells. Obviously, this is not necessarily a cure for everybody as there are only so many carriers, let alone donors, and it can be extremely expensive.
Other patients have received a similar treatment. 2 seem to be fine and even cured, but they are still taking ART to be on the safe side. A third test subject died in a relapse of lymphoma. The truth is bone marrow transplants are hard on the body, and the reality is we need something cheaper, easier, and more testable with less stress.