HIV is a clever and tricky virus, SA scientist warns after news of ‘cured’ US baby

2014-03-06 16:00

Another baby who was infected with HIV when she was born and treated with antiretroviral drugs a few hours later appears to have been “functionally cured”.

The news of the nine-month-old baby, which has raised hopes that the early detection and treatment of HIV may be one of the solutions to arresting the Aids pandemic, was revealed at the Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections conference taking place in Boston, Massachusetts, in the US.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, who have been monitoring the baby, presented their findings yesterday. They showed that the viral infection is no longer detectable in her system, which means the baby is HIV-negative.

However, a local scientist has cautioned against declaring that the baby has been cured, saying there is not strong enough evidence to confirm that the baby is no longer HIV-positive.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim told City Press that the evidence that the baby, from California, is cured, is inconclusive because “the baby is still on ARV treatment which could be the reason why the virus has been suppressed to such a point that it is undetectable”.

“HIV is a clever and tricky virus. It has the ability to hide in cells making people think that it is no longer in the system only to pop up years later,” he said.

“In this case, the baby would have to stop taking antiretrovirals and tests would have to be conducted before we can confidently say she is functionally cured,” said Abdool Karim.

If this baby is found to be negative after being taken off treatment (for years) she would be the second baby in the world to have been functionally cured of HIV.

The first baby to be classified as such was from Mississippi in the US. Her story was one of sheer luck. The first baby was also given ARVs immediately after birth, but the mother stopped taking the child to the clinic thus interrupting treatment.

Healthcare workers tracked down mother and baby. Tests were conducted to determine the effect of the treatment interruption and doctors found that the baby was no longer HIV-positive. More tests revealed that she was functionally cured.

Today the child is about four years old and is still not on HIV treatment.

Abdool Karim said: “The Mississippi baby is the only baby that is considered functionally cured in the world so far.

“There are several attempts to replicate what happened with this baby. Maybe soon, we will hear more of such cases,” he added.

The news of another baby who has been “functionally cured” of HIV comes in the wake of another HIV breakthrough in South Africa.

Local researchers published a paper on Sunday in the scientific journal, Nature, revealing how they had found a way of extracting and cloning rare and powerful antibodies – that can kill 88% of the HIV strains across the world – from an HIV-positive woman who had developed them.

This, according to researchers, is another step closer to finding an HIV cure.

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