December 19, 2014

Baby Steps Toward an AIDS Free World

A study presented at the 2013 Conference of Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections this week described how a child in rural Mississippi diagnosed as HIV-positive at birth has been cured. The child’s mother became infected with the HIV virus while she was pregnant and was unaware of her HIV-status at the time of her delivery. After her delivery, a routine HIV test on the mother indicated she was HIV-positive and tests were immediately ordered on the newborn, showing that the child too was infected. Typically,  HIV-positive newborns are immediately started on a one or two drug regimen of antiretrovirals (ARTs) to help prevent the spread of the virus. However, in this instance the physicians at University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) immediately started the baby on a three drug regimen typically only given to adolescents and adults. The baby remained on cocktail of medications for 18 months until the mother stopped bringing her child in to receive treatment.

Five months later the mother and child returned to UMMC and to the amazement of the physicians no virus was detected in any of the child’s lab results. The child had been cured. This is only the second person to have been technically diagnosed as cured of the HIV virus, the first being a  HIV-positive man who received a bone marrow transplant for leukemia that cured him of his HIV.

This child’s case is a  monumental step in the path to President Obama’s dream of an AIDS free generation, but this success did not happen overnight. For decades scientists and physicians have been studying the virus to understand how it works, how it spreads, and how it affects the body. This research has lead to dozens of different medications that dampen the potency of the HIV virus and reduces the mother-to-child transmission rate nearly ten-fold.  Global campaigns focused on teaching safe sexual practices and the importance of being tested have also helped reduce the number of newly infected patients from 2001 to 2011 by over 20%.

While numbers show the HIV Pandemic is headed in the right direction, we are by no means ready to declare victory against this virus. What is needed is a new generation of researchers and activists, ready to take the torch and carry on the good work done over the past 30 plus years. Like the successes of the past, I feel the future advances in the fight against HIV will take a great effort from a unified community, and it will come one step at the time.

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