With the exception of World AIDS Day, it’s rare to see anything related to HIV/AIDS trending on Twitter, and even rarer still for the trending to happen because of good news. But the world—online and offline—was abuzz on Monday with exciting news out of the CROI Conference: a young girl in Mississippi had been “functionally cured” of her HIV infection.
Her cure came not through something outrageously expensive or experimental, but through a treatment regimen of triple-drug antiretroviral therapy given to her within 30 hours of birth, even before doctors had confirmed her HIV status—a proactively aggressive treatment strategy that appears to have paid unprecedented dividends. The mother and her daughter soon dropped out of the medical system, and the mother stopped giving her daughter antiretroviral drugs. When they eventually returned to the medical center, however, doctors found only scant traces of HIV in her daughter’s system, and the virus had not able to replicate itself and spread, even without sustained treatment.
There are still many things we don’t know about this study—whether this functional cure will be lifelong, whether it applies only to pediatric cases or could also work for very newly-infected adolescents and adults, exactly how the drugs defeated the virus, and so on. And replicating this case, particularly in resource-limited settings across the developing world might be quite challenging. In most sub-Saharan African countries, infant HIV testing is done within weeks, not hours, of birth—a time delay which might mitigate the impacts of treatment — and triple-drug treatment regimens are often not prescribed in favor of simpler, less expensive formulations. The anecdote also highlights many health systems challenges, including a clear reminder via the mother of how often people drop in and out of the HIV continuum of care, making patient monitoring and treatment more challenging.
But this study should offer momentum for the global AIDS community because it provides one more finding about how our existing tools can have new and even groundbreaking impact in the fight against HIV, just as we have learned over the last two years that antiretroviral treatment effectively serves as prevention and that medical circumcision has significant prevention benefits for men. It should also give advocates a good excuse to remind those who are just tuning in to this story for the first time that, aside from curing pediatric AIDS, we already have simple treatments available to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother-to-child in 95 percent or more of cases. The road toward achieving the beginning of the end of AIDS will inevitably be a long one, but the news out of Mississippi should propel us onward with a bit of extra hope this week.
Check out ONE’s Global Commitments report on AIDS here.