A South African child born with HIV has surprised experts by appearing to be effectively cured of the AIDS virus after just a year of treatment followed by eight and a half years drug-free. The child, whose identity is being protected, was given a burst of treatment shortly after birth. They have since been off drugs for eight-and-a-half years without symptoms or signs of active virus. The family is said to be “really delighted”. Most people need treatment every day to prevent HIV destroying the immune system and causing Aids. Understanding how the child is protected could lead to new drugs or a vaccine for stopping HIV. The child caught the infection from their mother around the time of birth in 2007. They had very high levels of HIV in the blood. Early antiretroviral therapy was not standard practice at the time, but was given to the child from nine weeks old as part of a clinical trial. Levels of the virus became undetectable, treatment was stopped after 40 weeks and unlike anybody else on the study – the virus has not returned. Early therapy which attacks the virus before it has a chance to fully establish itself has been implicated in child “cure” cases twice before. Patients with HIV would normally need to stay on antiretroviral (ART) drugs for the rest of their lives to keep AIDS at bay. But this child, still off treatment and now almost 10 years old, has no signs of the disease.
This and other recent, isolated cases of remission have given additional hope to the 37 million people worldwide infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Yet experts urged caution, saying the case is extremely rare does not suggest a simple path to a cure. “It’s a case that raises more questions than it necessarily answers,” said Linda-Gail Bekker, president of the International AIDS Society (IAS), which is holding a conference in Paris this week. “It does raise the interesting notion that maybe treatment isn’t for life. (But) it’s clearly a rare phenomenon.” The baby contracted HIV from its mother. Treatment with ART started when it was almost nine weeks old but was interrupted at 40 weeks when the virus had been suppressed, and the child was monitored regularly for any signs of relapse. “At age 9.5 years, the child was clinically asymptomatic,” the researchers said. Sharon Lewin, an HIV expert at the University of Melbourne and co-chair of the IAS’s HIV Cure and Cancer forum, said the case threw up possible insights into how the human immune system can controls HIV replication when treatment is interrupted. Yet in terms of the scientific search for a cure for HIV and AIDS, she told Reuters, it appeared only to confirm previous reports of similarly rare cases. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has killed around 35 million people worldwide since it began in the 1980s.