On Sunday, doctors announced the kind of medical news that could drastically change the face of medicine: a baby born with HIV was announced cured, the New York Times reported. According to United Nations, there are currently three million children living with HIV; this case could lead to treatments that drastically reduce the number of new children born with the virus.
A rural Mississippi newborn, whose name and gender aren’t available, began receiving antiretroviral medication just 30 hours after birth, an unusual step for doctors to take with patients so young. The child’s mother arrived at the rural hospital already in labor prematurely; she hadn’t gotten medical treatment during her pregnancy and didn’t know she was HIV-positive. When her test results came back positive, the baby was transferred from the local hospital to University of Mississippi Medical Center. The child underwent a battery of tests to look for HIV but Dr. Hannah B. Gay didn’t wait for positive test results to begin treatment with three antiretroviral drugs usually used for treatment rather than a safety measure.
The tests revealed a relatively low level of the virus in the infant but Dr. Gay said the results did point to infection occurring in the womb rather than during delivery. After continued drug treatment, however, the baby’s virus levels dropped the same way adult patients’ do. By the time the child was a month old, the virus was undetectable. That was still the case 18 months later, after which the mother and child stopped going to the hospital. When they did return five months later the baby still showed no sign of the virus, though doctors expected he would. The baby is now 2 1/2 years old and still testing negative for HIV.
One theory to explain what doctors are calling a “functional cure” is that the virus was attacked before the it was able to establish hidden reservoirs. Because adult patients aren’t treated right when they become infected, the virus has a chance to establish itself deep in the body, lying dormant for a long time. Those patients who stop treatment will see a spike in virus levels because those dormant viruses become active again.
Some medical experts who weren’t involved in treating the baby are skeptical of the results, saying there wasn’t enough time to establish whether or not the baby had actually been infected. There are others who argue that because the virus hadn’t had time to establish the hidden reservoir that’s so hard to fight in older patients it isn’t a true cure, but it does open the door to important developments in treating newborn patients. Only about 200 infants each year are born with HIV but the hope is this research will drastically change the way babies born to HIV-positive mothers in sub-Saharan Africa, giving them a better chance at life. Doctors involved in the study say this case brings us closer to a cure for pediatric HIV, something previously thought impossible.