A friend of mine recently came up to me at a social gathering asking if I had heard about the HIV cure in the news? To which I replied, “which one?” It seems there are constantly many stories circulating about cures for AIDS. The most recent came out of the University of Mississippi in Jackson, MS.
Functional cure for the virus that causes AIDS
“A functional HIV cure” was reportedly found after treating a 26th month-old in Mississippi who initially tested positive for HIV. The child’s mother was found to be HIV positive after delivery. She had not received prenatal care, which would have allowed for preventive medications and other steps to could reduce the possibility of HIV spreading from mother to baby. The baby was tested shortly after birth using HIV DNA polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR, and found to be positive. However, After several months of treatment, the baby was retested and found to have a negative HIV test. So we are left hearing about a potential cure for AIDS, a functional HIV cure, I believe, they are calling it.
Mother to child HIV transmission
A short digression. In the US, mother to baby transmission can be cut down to less than 1% when appropriate medical care is provided. In today’s day and age, all pregnant patients should receive prenatal care, which includes routine HIV testing. Treating a mother during pregnancy, delivering HIV positive mothers with cesarean section, avoiding breastfeeding and treating the infant with antiretrovirals are all steps that can be taken to prevent spread of the virus from mother to baby. Obviously that never happened in this case.
Was the baby truly infected with HIV?
Unfortunately, what is unclear is if in fact the baby was actually infected. That’s right. I know, the baby tested positive. So how is this possible? In medicine, we have instances where tests provide inaccurate results. For example, say you take your blood pressure in a medical office and it is sky high. But you know, as does the doctor, that it might not be true. So she repeats the blood pressure measurement and it turns out that the first reading was wrong. This same false result or false-positive is possible with HIV testing.
Are there other documented cures for AIDS similar to this one?
The sensationalist nature of mainstream media is well documented. (How many times have you read about a “cure for cancer”?) And according to other cases, there is good reason to think that in fact, the baby was never infected.
While false HIV results are extremely rare in adults, research throughout the years have documented high false-positive rates from PCR in infants. In 2012, the South African Medical Journal reported that 8 infants with HIV positive mothers tested positive with DNA PCR after birth. At 18 months, six of these patients tested negative at 18 months of age. What do you think the journal article title was? 6 patients cured of AIDS? Actually, it was “False-positive HIV DNA PCR testing of infants.” According to the research, HIV DNA PCR testing is much less effective shortly after birth than it is in older children. The efficacy of testing at 1.5 months was 50%. At 3 months it was 58%. This efficiency rose to 100% at by 7 months of age. The take home point is that there is a propensity for false results with DNA tests for HIV at a young age. Another article which I saw reported 40 such infants who initially tested positive. What do you think they reported? We observed that 40 babies were miraculously cured of AIDS? No, they had the same conclusion–false positive HIV testing.
No one can say whether there was really a “functional HIV cure” in the Mississippi baby. However, I think it is more likely that the one case presented represents a false positive rather than a cure.