There have been so many disappointments in the search for a cure for HIV/AIDS that caution hedges reports about a potential cure. A report presented at the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta this week stops short of declaring a cure in the case of a Mississippi toddler born to a mother whose HIV infection was undiagnosed and untreated. Tests showed evidence of the virus in the baby.
Within 30 hours of birth, the baby was given a powerful three-drug treatment therapy for HIV instead of a standard low-dose preventive regimen for infants. After 18 months, the mother did not continue the baby’s treatment. The expectation when treatment is thus interrupted is that the viral load in the bloodstream would increase. But what doctors found were barely detectable, nonreplicating fragments of the virus when they retested the baby following months during which child had received no medications.
The excitement generated by the finding resides in the potential significance for the 200 or so babies in the U.S. and the 300,000-plus worldwide who are infected at birth with HIV each year. The hope is that if the toddler’s virus-free status holds up, the key elements of success — aggressive treatment following an accurate, early diagnosis — would serve as a model approach to reduce the risk of transmission from HIV-positive mothers.
Is it a cure? Researchers appropriately stress this is a single case that calls for more monitoring and research. But it puts researchers in the space between mere hope and the certainty of a cure for HIV in newborns.