What You Haven't Heard About the HIV Baby's 'Cure'

Doctors behind a baby's HIV "cure" no longer use that word.

ByABC News
October 24, 2013, 1:32 PM

Oct. 24,2013— -- A Mississippi baby's so-called HIV "cure" looks promising so far, according to a new study, but the study doesn't mention that doctors began aggressive and potentially toxic treatment for the virus days before they could confirm she had it.

The doctors behind a Mississippi baby's so-called HIV "cure" announced eight months ago with great fanfare have published a study about the case, but they're no longer calling it a "functional cure" as they did in March. Instead, they've opted for the more conservative term "remission," presumably because the virus could still return to cause an infection.

But in three years, it hasn't, according to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"I'm glad they're not still calling it a functional cure," said Dr. Mark Kline, a pediatric HIV and AIDS specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who said many of his patients have approached him since last March with the false hope that they, too, could stop taking their HIV medication. "On the basis of one case, it's hard to say whether there are broader treatment implications. For right now, I'd say probably not."

Dr. Hannah Gay, a University of Mississippi Medical Center pediatrician, treated the baby girl with aggressive doses of potentially toxic antiretroviral drugs 30 hours after her birth.

Gay ran virologic tests shortly before she started the baby on HIV treatment, but she did not wait the several days it would take for the test results to confirm whether the baby was actually infected with the virus, ABCNews.com reported last March.

Since there was a 75 percent to 80 percent chance that the baby would not have contracted HIV from her mother, Gay's treatment has often been called "gutsy."

Gay and two of her fellow researchers were named one of Time magazine's most influential people of 2013.

"We're thrilled that the child remains off medication and has no detectable virus replicating," Gay said in a statement Oct. 23. "We've continued to follow the child, obviously, and she continues to do very well. There is no sign of the return of HIV, and we will continue to follow her for the long term."

The decision to stop calling this case a "functional cure" came because people outside the medical community misunderstood its meaning, homing in on the word "cure," Gay said in a statement to ABCNews.com.

"We felt that for the [New England Journal of Medicine] article the word 'remission' might better communicate to all audiences the concept we were trying to convey," she said. "From the beginning, we have urged caution against labeling this single case as a complete 'cure,' stressing the need to observe the child for a longer period of time to be certain there is no rebound."

Read about 14 French patients who went into HIV remission.

Did the Baby Really Have HIV?

The story started three years ago in rural Mississippi, where a mother learned she was HIV positive during labor. (Her identity has been kept under wraps for privacy reasons.)

Once the baby was born, doctors wanted to administer the standard dose of antiretroviral medications to prevent the virus from taking hold, but they did not have the liquid version of the drug intended for infants, according to The Associated Press. The baby was transferred to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where Gay is a pediatric HIV specialist.

The baby girl had a higher risk of being infected with the virus because her mother, not knowing her HIV status, had not taken transmission-reducing drugs, which have been found to reduce the rate of HIV transmission to 1 percent, during her pregnancy, Kline said. Without these prenatal preventive measures, babies have a 20 to 25 percent chance of becoming infected with their mother's HIV, said Kline.