The reported cure of a baby girl born with HIV in Mississippi has sparked excitement in the medical community. Doctors say the apparent disappearance of her infection is due to very early treatment of the infant with standard drug therapies. They say the case is a proof of concept that HIV infection could potentially be curable in infants.
But, a Rochester-based specialist says that increased HIV screening of pregnant women remains crucial to decreasing the number of infants born with the infection. Director of the pediatric HIV program at Golisano Children’s Hospital, Dr. Geoffrey Weinberg, says infants can only get HIV from their mothers, and diagnosing women during pregnancy is key.
“If you can diagnose women with their HIV infection during pregnancy, then get them medications, then that prevents - and that’s been shown over and over again - that prevents transmission of the virus from the mother to the child,” says Weinberg. “In medicine, prevention is always way, way better than treatment.”
Weinberg says there are about 10-20 pregnant women in Monroe County each year who have HIV when they deliver. He says that means there are the same number of babies at risk of being born with the infection.
However, Weinberg says New York state has been a leader in advocating for doctors’ offices and medical clinics to council women on the value of HIV screening. He says the success rate for preventing infant infection from diagnosed mothers has been at 100 percent in Monroe County for several years.
“We have a very good track record in that none of them over the past 15 or so years have acquired that infection.”
Weinberg says this recent breakthrough in HIV treatment is an exciting step, but realistically he doesn’t expect it to result in changes to treatment for most patients with the infection.
“I would not call it a miracle yet. I would call it exciting, but we’ll have to see what comes out of it.”
He says although the ability to cure HIV in infants would be a great step forward, doctors would always prefer that the case didn’t arise at all.
“On a broad scale, both internationally, nationally, and even locally, what we would rather do is not end up in a situation where the baby might have an infection that we have to treat, but to prevent it to begin with,” Weinberg says.
The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between six upstate New York public media outlets. The initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), helps the public gain a better understanding of the connection between technological breakthroughs and the revitalization of the upstate New York economy. For more from the Innovation Trail, visit their website www.innovationtrail.org.