Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Everyone’s talking about the baby who has been reportedly cured by HIV. The child — now two and a half — was treated aggressively with anti-HIV drugs 30 hours after birth. The baby eventually went off the drugs and stopped coming into the clinic, but has been declared “functionally cured.”Researchers say it’s because the intervention started soon after infection, and that differences between a baby and an adult’s immune system could mean a “functional” cure is easier to attain in babies. This is great for this child and could lead to changes in the way that the 330,000 babies born to, and infected by, HIV positive mothers are treated.
What worries us the most is that the news of this “cure” will spread far and wide, but the actual implications and limitations of this finding won’t. The fact is, HIV isn’t cured. It is still, and will continue to be, a huge burden, not just in developing nations, but throughout the globe.
There is burgeoning optimism about a real, workable cure within our lifetime, but we are far from there yet and there is much to be gained from downplaying this latest development.
So, that in mind, here are 11 facts you need to know about HIV, this baby’s “cure,” and the state of HIV treatment at the moment:
- The study only looked at one HIV positive child. We have no idea if the results would be similar for other children. This child could be special, like the “long-term nonprogressors” — people who are infected with HIV but never develop AIDS, or the adults who are HIV resistant even though they’ve been repeatedly exposed to the virus.
- Anti-HIV drugs decrease HIV in the blood to undetectable levels in adults and other babies as well. The difference in this case is that this baby was taken off drugs against medical advice.
- It was in a child that was recently infected with the virus — in a similar situation in adults — like when a medical professional accidentally sticks themselves with a needle from a potentially HIV positive patient, a similar treatment is used. These people are “prophylaticly” given a course of anti-HIV drugs as quickly as possible, to stop the virus from multiplying in their bodies. Recently, HIV drugs were approved for use as a preventative in “high-risk” men who have sex with HIV positive men, for example prostitutes or IV drug users.
- A year’s worth of anti-HIV therapy in South Africa costs between $500 and $900.
- That’s not cheap considering 90 per cent of babies who would benefit from this preventative treatment are in developing nations where they can’t afford treatment, and access to these drugs is limited.
- In South Africa and other African countries, babies born to HIV infected mothers aren’t even tested for the virus until they are six weeks old. Changing the treatment protocol will take time and be difficult.
- The data hasn’t undergone peer review and analysis by other researchers; it was only presented in a talk.
- Some researchers who weren’t involved in the project are worried about how much virus was actually in the baby’s system when it was born. (Other outside researchers say they’ve seen the data and it’s truly a “cure.”)
- The adult “cure” of the “Berlin patient” — announced in 2008 — involved a full bone marrow transplant. It still hasn’t been repeated.
- HIV is spread by adults, mainly through unprotected sexual contact and needle sharing. A quarter of adults don’t know they are infected, and they will continue to spread the disease to other adults.
- While the early intervention seems to have “cured” this patient, there will always be the lingering fear that the virus has integrated into its genome and is hiding out, waiting to strike. This is one of the reasons HIV has been so hard to cure — the virus can take a copy of its genome and insert it into your white blood cells, where it can’t be hurt by drugs.
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