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Exploring the Media Fascination With the Baby Cured of HIV

By Paul E. Sax, M.D.

March 5, 2013

As undoubtedly you've heard by now, there's another person cured of HIV out there -- this time, it's a baby born to an HIV-infected mother.

Here's the story: The mother didn't know she was HIV positive until delivery, and the baby was found to be infected by both HIV DNA and RNA right at birth. The doctors started combination antiretroviral therapy approximately one day later, essentially as soon as the results came back. There was a good response to treatment, with declining HIV viral loads over the next few weeks that quickly became undetectable.

Successful treatment continued for 18 months, at which time mom and baby were lost to follow-up; the mom stopped the baby's antiretrovirals. When the two returned to care 5 months later, the baby's HIV RNA and antibody were both negative -- much to the surprise of the doctors. Supplemental testing, using evaluations similar to those done on the Berlin patient, did not yield any evidence of replication-competent virus, and the baby remains off therapy today.

In short, baby cured of HIV. Stop the presses!!! (Do they still say that?) Front page story, New York Times. Look at this Google News Page and the search gadget at the top of this post! Here at CROI, my colleagues and I are all getting e-mails from our friends/family/etc. asking about this "breakthrough."

And we're kind of baffled. Because this case will have about as much immediate impact on the HIV epidemic in the United States as the prior cure -- that's right, virtually none. Maybe it will have an impact globally, but that will be a major challenge.

Thinking about it more, however, I understand why this is such compelling news:

So what are the practical implications of this case?

First, in developing countries with high HIV prevalence, where perinatal transmission remains a problem, strategies to aggressively treat the newborns of untreated HIV-positive mothers should be implemented pronto. Second, the case will probably teach us a bit more about how we might someday actually cure more than just a single person here and there.

But for now, the headline to this USA Today piece -- "Child's HIV Cure Won't Mean New Treatments Immediately" -- is the understatement of the year.

Paul Sax is Clinical Director of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital. His blog HIV and ID Observations is part of Journal Watch, where he is Editor-in-Chief of Journal Watch AIDS Clinical Care.

Read's multi-author blog, HIV Care Today.

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