Researchers say they have, for the first time, cured a baby born with HIV - a development that could help improve the treatment of babies infected at birth.
The findings were presented Sunday at the 20th annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Atlanta, the U.S.
The health of the mother largely determines the fate of her child, in fact an overwhelming majority- over 90 percent- of HIV infections in infants are passed on by mothers during pregnancy, labor, delivery or breastfeeding.
The Middle East, North Africa region is home to approximately 500, 000 HIV carriers according to a report by U.N. Aids. 15,000 children under the age of 15 are infected across the region, making this scientific breakthrough an important discovery.
HIV/AIDS proves fatal for 24,000 people in the region each year, while an estimated 96, 000 children are left orphaned by the disease.
It must be noted that there is an important technical nuance to the new discovery: researchers insist on calling it a “functional cure” rather than a complete cure.
That is because the virus is not totally eradicated. Still, its presence is reduced to such a low level that a body can control it without the need for standard drug treatment.
The only fully cured AIDS patient recognized worldwide is the so-called “Berlin patient,” American Timothy Brown. He is considered cured of HIV and leukemia five years after receiving bone marrow transplants from a rare donor naturally resistant to HIV. The marrow transplant was aimed at treating his leukemia.
A ‘cured’ baby girl
But in this new case, the baby girl received nothing more invasive or complex than commonly available antiretroviral drugs. The difference, however, was the dosage and the timing: starting less than 30 hours after her birth.
The baby was infected by her HIV-positive mother, and her treatment with therapeutic doses of antiretroviral drugs began even before her own positive blood test came back.
It is that kind of aggressive treatment that likely yielded the “functional cure.”
Tests showed the baby’s viral count steadily declined until it could no longer be detected 29 days after her birth.
The child was given follow-up treatment with antiretrovirals until 18 months, at which point doctors lost contact with her for 10 months. During that period she was not taking antiretrovirals.
Researchers then were able to do a series of blood tests - and none gave an HIV-positive result.
What researchers call dormant HIV-infected cells often re-start infections in HIV-infected patients within a few weeks after antiretroviral treatment stops, forcing most people who have tested HIV-positive to stay on the drugs for life or risk the illness progressing.
The case of the baby girl has buoyed hopes.
“Our next step is to find out if this is a highly unusual response to very early antiretroviral therapy or something we can actually replicate in other high-risk newborns,” Persaud pointed out.