Sufferers from HIV usually require daily treatment for the rest of their lives to control the symptoms of the debilitating disease. But researchers got a massive boost on Monday when it was announced that a 9-year-old South African child had been in remission for eight and a half years, without having to use antiretroviral drugs, after receiving intense treatment shortly after birth.
A child with HIV at birth has spent most of its life without needing any treatment, say doctors in South Africa. The child was given a burst of treatment shortly after birth.
The child, whose identity is being protected, has since been off drugs for eight-and-a-half years without symptoms or signs of active virus. The family is said to be "really delighted".
Most people need treatment every day to prevent HIV destroying the immune system and causing Aids. Understanding how the child is protected could lead to new drugs or a vaccine for stopping HIV.
The child was born in 2007 and caught the virus from the mother, the BBC reported. The child was put on a clinical trial at 9 weeks and received antiretroviral therapy for 40 weeks.
The child was one of 143 children to receive the short course of drugs; another received 96 weeks' of treatment. At the time, the use of ART for treating children with HIV was not standard practice.
In the first case, levels of the virus became undetectable, treatment was stopped after 40 weeks and unlike anybody else on the study, the virus has not returned.
Following the 40-week treatment period, levels of the virus became undetectable in the child's blood. This has remained the case until the present, and the child has not had to undergo further treatment.
Early therapy which attacks the virus before it has a chance to fully establish itself has been implicated in child "cure" cases twice before.
The "Mississippi Baby" was put on treatment within 30 hours of birth and went 27 months without treatment before HIV re-emerged in her blood.
There was also a case in France with a patient who has now gone more than 11 years without drugs.
Dr Avy Violari, the head of paediatric research at the Perinal HIV Research Unit in Johannesburg, said, "We don't believe that antiretroviral therapy alone can lead to remission. We don't really know what's the reason why this child has achieved remission - we believe it's either genetic or immune system-related."
''To our knowledge, this is the first reported case of sustained control of HIV in a child enrolled in a randomised trial of ART interruption following treatment early in infancy,'' Violari said, according to The Guardian. Violari presented the case study Monday to the International AIDS Society Conference in Paris.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the body's immune system, making sufferers susceptible to a variety of infections and diseases. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, refers to a set of symptoms and illnesses that constitute an advanced stage of HIV. Antiretroviral therapy has advanced so much that the majority of HIV-positive people can take the drugs without major hindrances, but some people still suffer damaging side effects. These can include nausea, vomiting, insomnia, and anaemia.
''Technically, this baby is not totally cured of HIV, but it is certainly what is referred to as remission, in that there's no virus circulating in the blood, and there is a normal immune system according to the range for children of their age,'' says Sarah Fidler, speaking on behalf of the British HIV Association to Newsweek.
Fidler says it is important that HIV-positive people do not stop taking antiretroviral drugs as a result of the case. Usually, children remain on ART throughout their life and do not stop after a set period. Fidler says the only reason the South African 9-year-old did so is because the child was part of a randomised trial.