Scientists announced Sunday that a baby born with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has apparently been cured. The Mississippi baby, who is now 2½, has been off medication for about a year and has shown no signs of infection.
Testing uncovered mere traces of lingering HIV genetic material, making it impossible to guarantee that the child will remain healthy. But if the child does stay healthy, it will be only the second reported cure in the world.
Sunday's announcement was made at a major AIDS meeting in Atlanta, and it offers hope for children infected with HIV, especially those in AIDS-plagued African countries where babies are frequently born with the virus.
"You could call this about as close to a cure, if not a cure, that we've seen," Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, told The Associated Press.
The baby who has apparently been cured was given more aggressive treatment than usual, starting with a three-drug infusion within 30 hours of birth, which was before tests confirmed that the newborn was infected with HIV, and not just at risk from a mother who wasn’t diagnosed with HIV until she was in labor and about to give birth to the baby.
"I just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk, and deserved our best shot," said Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist at the University of Mississippi.
The doctor’s quick action in taking an aggressive approach appears to have eliminated HIV in the baby's blood before it could spread to other locations in the body, planting itself within reservoirs of dormant cells.
Around 300,000 children were born with HIV in 2011, with the majority in poor countries where only about 60 percent of infected pregnant women get treatment to prevent them from passing HIV onto their children. However, such births are very rare in the United States since HIV testing and treatment are a routine part of prenatal care.
"We can't promise to cure babies who are infected. We can promise to prevent the vast majority of transmissions if the moms are tested during every pregnancy," Gay said.
The only other person apparently cured of the AIDS virus is Timothy Ray Brown of San Francisco, who underwent a high-risk bone marrow transplant from a unique donor who was one of a rare few to be naturally resistant to the HIV virus. It has been five years since the transplant, and Brown remains free from infection and has not needed HIV medications during that time.
In the baby’s case, however, the mother arrived at a rural emergency room in advanced labor and without any prenatal care. A rapid test detected HIV, but the doctors at the small hospital didn’t have any HIV medication suitable for administering to babies to prevent the virus from taking root, so they sent the newborn to Dr. Gay’s medical center, where the baby received the proper medication in a higher dose.
The baby responded well through 18 months, when treatment was stopped. Several months later, standard tests detected no virus in the child's blood. At ten months, additional highly sensitive tests were performed on the child, which also detected no sign of HIV, except for some lingering genetic material that doctors say don’t appear to replicate.