4 years ago in the state of Mississippi in the United States, a baby girl was born to an HIV positive mother and was shown to have the virus in her blood after birth. This is unfortunately not uncommon. Transmission of HIV from mother to baby is known to happen. The traumatic journey down the birth canal where the baby would be exposed to her mothers blood is thought to be one of the major vectors of exposure in Mother/Baby transmission (also known as Vertical Transmission). Interestingly, in this particular case, the mother did not receive any Ante-Natal HIV care.
Shortly after birth though, the child along with the help of her doctors embarked on a rather unorthodox treatment. Hours after birth, the baby was treated with Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy and the high dose therapy was continued for 18 months after the child was born (the doctors may have wanted to continue the treatment for a longer period of time, but it became difficult for them to track the whereabouts of the child after that).
The results, at first, were encouraging. When the baby was available for checkup, testing showed that HIV was undetectable in her blood. As recently as March of this year, she was considered to be in remission.
The significance of this feat is that, maybe, if we can catch these children quickly enough and treat them, we may be able to prevent transmission of the virus to the next generation. Eventually, if the treatment was replicable on a global scale, we would be able to eradicate the virus in a somewhat similar method as polio was eradicated. There are major differences of course. Most importantly that, for Polio, we have an effective vaccine. This Holy Grail has still not been achieved yet for the Human-Immuno Virus.
Those hopes were dimmed, after last week’s testing showed that the virus has now re-emerged in the young child's bloodstream. The implications of this finding have yet to be fully understood. In the immediate future, funding for certain studies which are trying to duplicate the treatment given may be shifted to other avenues.
There are certain mitigating circumstances here. Another child with similar medical background and treatment has remained HIV free so far. But, she was given Anti-Retroviral Therapy for a lot longer than 18 months.
Unfortunately this just underscores how much further we have to go. Official Indian Government statistics peg the prevalence of the epidemic at up to 3 million people. The virus continues to spread and though some focused interventions by the government have blunted the rate of spread, the virus continues to burn like wildfire in India. We need to step up efforts on developing new therapies and add to the global effort for the development of a vaccine.
Though, today, the news is not good, I can only hope this galvanises each and every one of us to work harder on stopping this modern-day plague.