On March 3, doctors announced that by giving powerful drugs to the baby of an HIV-infected mother in Mississippi shortly after her birth, they had apparently eliminated the virus from her body. The news fueled renewed optimism about the prospects of finally curing AIDS. But a true cure is almost certainly years away.
What happened with the baby girl in Mississippi was remarkable, but it’s not clear what lessons the case has for improving the health of other children or fighting the epidemic generally. The infant never developed AIDS, the disease caused by HIV. And scientists are debating whether she was truly infected.
Here’s what is known: The baby’s mother was infected and had not had prenatal care. After delivery, the baby had some HIV in her blood. Aggressive treatment with a combination of powerful drugs drove the virus to undetectable levels.
Doctors were surprised, however, when a long break in treatment (after the mother started missing appointments) didn’t lead to a resurgence of HIV. The virus remained undetectable, though it’s too soon to know if it is permanently gone.
This case is unusual. HIV infections in pregnant women are routinely detected during prenatal care, allowing time to start effective drug regimens that keep the virus from infecting babies. Such strategies are all but universal in wealthier nations and now reach more than half of infected women in the parts of Africa where HIV is widespread. But given how cheap and easy it is to prevent infection in infants, it’s a tragedy that more than 300,000 contract HIV each year. The developments in the Mississippi case are unlikely to have a direct impact on most of them.
Even medicine, though, may not be a good answer today.
The widespread provision of AIDS drugs — with crucial help from the U.S. government — has been one of the most stirring public health successes of our time, extending and improving the lives of millions of people. These medicines, when given to infected women before labor and to their newborns shortly afterward, also help prevent infection in babies. And, if started quickly enough, a short course of AIDS drugs can protect people recently exposed to HIV — such as rape victims and health professionals stuck with infected needles — from contracting the virus.
Yet for all their powers, the ability of these medicines to slow the sexual transmission of HIV — its main route across the planet — remains unclear. People whose HIV is treated effectively are much less likely to pass the virus to sexual partners, but in communities with access to AIDS drugs, risky behavior often arises because there is less fear of the disease.
There are some other powerful prevention tools. HIV thrives in regions where it’s fairly common to have more than one regular sexual partner at the same time, creating webs of interaction that the virus can follow from victim to victim. Condoms can help slow the spread, as can HIV treatment. But the most potent force in reducing infections, as discovered in Uganda, Zimbabwe and several other places, is lowering the number of sexual partners of the average adult.
Also remarkably effective is circumcision, an African tradition that had fallen out of favor in certain areas, including the ones now hit hardest by AIDS. Circumcised men are at least 65 percent less likely to contract HIV than uncircumcised men. Of course, fewer infected men means fewer infected women, and fewer infected babies.
Reports about the Mississippi baby have garnered so much attention in part because people fear that the epidemic is out of control. U.N. officials estimate that 34 million people have HIV, with 2.5 million new infections and 1.7 million deaths in 2011 alone. Even in the United States, with its routine access to modern medical care, there were an estimated 8,300 AIDS deaths in 2010.
But there is room for optimism. The spread of HIV peaked in 1997, and the pace of new infections has been falling gradually ever since. Deaths have peaked in recent years, both because of declining infection rates and better access to treatment. This has happened even though the long, expensive search for a vaccine remains far from fruition.
To defeat AIDS, experts say much more needs to be done to curb infection rates and to get medicine to those with HIV. And while debate remains fierce over what prevention measures are most important, there is consensus that some combination of what’s currently available can eventually overcome the epidemic.
These include making male circumcision easily available, encouraging adults to have fewer sexual partners, making condoms more accessible, providing clean needles to drug users and treating HIV-infected people before they develop AIDS. And to keep babies safe, doctors’ most important priority is to keep women from contracting HIV in the first place. In public health, curing diseases is great. Preventing them is even better.