Commentary: Why The “Cured” Baby Won’t Really Impact HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - APRIL 18:  A newborn baby who's mother is HIV positive is checked by a nurse before being given anti-retroviral drugs at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, (PIMS),on April 18, 2006 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although babies to infected mothers are usually born HIV positive, with proper medication they often become healthy and HIV-free by their first birthday. UNAIDS says the epidemic is exploding across Pakistan, where HIV testing in the general populace is rare, making detection and treatment for most victims almost impossible. While the Pakistani government officially acknowledges less than 4,000 cases nationwide, the UN says that figure could be well over 100,000. December 1 is World AIDS Day, and 2006 marked 25th anniversary of the first diagnosis of the deadly disease.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Commentary: Why The “Cured” Baby Won’t Really Impact HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

News of a baby being cured of HIV is hopeful for babies and youth, but the treatment won't cure HIV in adults.

Published March 8, 2013

Earlier this week, as my inbox became flooded with emails about a “baby in Mississippi cured of HIV,” I opened them with skepticism.

Not because these claims are impossible, but because the word “cure” carries a lot of hype and hope, especially for the millions of people living with this disease who hope that one day they can ditch the virus, the pills and the stigma and return back to their old lives before their diagnosis.

Not to mention, the last person to be cured from HIV, Timothy Brown, was an anomaly.

So I proceeded with caution, even when other media outlets and journalists didn’t, because I know better. And I’m glad I did, because after the smoke cleared, it was clear that this “cure” means nothing in terms of a cure for adults living with HIV/AIDS here in the U.S.

Now, I want to be clear: I am not debating whether the baby was cured.

The study says that the mother was completely unaware that she herself was HIV-positive until doctors tested her after she gave birth. The doctors started her newborn on meds, standard practice in pediatric cases in the U.S., and found that in a few weeks the virus level in the baby was undetectable — a state where the virus is still present in the body, but completely under control and not replicating at a fast pace.

Somehow 18 months later, the baby and mother fell through the cracks of the system and the baby went without treatment. But when the mother brought the baby back five months later, the baby was tested and the results were negative. This surprised the doctors, given that she’d been off treatment and normally in people, taking a break from treatment can have a disastrous affect.

But let’s take a step back. Thanks to antiretrovirals, many HIV-positive women have given birth to HIV-negative babies for years. For those outside of the AIDS world, that isn’t a well known fact, but if a woman who is positive is on treatment, she has a 2 percent chance of passing the virus on to her baby.

In adults, this isn’t the case. Treatment can only suppress the virus from replicating. This is mostly because by the time adults test positive; the virus has been in their system for months — maybe even years.

This doesn’t mean all is lost.

If anything, this development might change how poorer countries around the world approach treating HIV-positive moms and their newborns in hopes to bring down pediatric HIV rates. Most important, as Liz Sabo writes in her recent USA Today piece, is that the lack of prenatal and HIV care for the baby’s mother is a constant reminder that even here in the U.S., linking and retaining low-income HIV-positive Americans into medical care is still a struggle:

Only 28 percent of people of the 1.2 million HIV-positive Americans have been diagnosed and treated successfully so that their levels of virus are undetectable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

HIV has become entrenched among the poor in the USA. Many patients lack access to health care and grapple with other problems that keep them from getting the care they need, such as homelessness, drug addiction or mental illness, [says] Rana Chakraborty [an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.]

In the end, I hate to be a party pooper, because this news is important. It’s just not the news that we hope it to be.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Written by Kellee Terrell


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