Will Uganda have a “Mississippi Baby”?

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Last week, was it was reported that the Mississippi baby previously thought to be cured of HIV was in fact carrying detectable amounts of the virus.

The child, born in 2010 to an HIV-positive mother who received no prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services during her pregnancy, tested positive for HIV shortly after birth. She was given a high dose of antiretroviral medications at 30 hours of age and remained on antiretroviral therapy (ART) for 18 months before she was lost to follow-up care.

Five months after being lost to care, the child was again examined by medical staff and found to have undetectable levels of HIV, and remained so for more than two years. This was the basis of her Care and Treatment advisors declaring her cured.

This month, at almost 4 years of age, detectable levels of HIV were found in the child’s blood, along with a decreased level of CD4 T-cells and the presence of HIV antibodies—signals that the virus is actively replicating in the body. According to NIH, the baby had (16,750 copies/mL). Repeat viral load blood testing performed 72 hours later confirmed this finding (10,564 copies/mL of virus).

Additionally, the child had decreased levels of CD4+ T-cells, a key component of a normal immune system, and the presence of HIV antibodies—signals of an actively replicating pool of virus in the body. Based on these results, the child was again started on antiretroviral therapy. To date, the child is tolerating the medication with no side effects and treatment is decreasing virus levels. Genetic sequencing of the virus indicated that the child’s HIV infection was the same strain acquired from the mother.

There are a number of things that caught my attention when i read up the details on this story:

  1. That a mother went to deliver in the hospital, even though she had not received PMTCT services during her pregnancy – this is something for which we are yet to achieve 50% as a nation. Are we able to reverse this? Because whenever a mother does not deliver from the facility, its not only a missed opportunity to test for HIV, it means we cannot catch other birth related complications, and as such we continue to stare into grim figures of Maternal and Neonatal deaths.
  2. There was a lab and test kits to test for HIV, and CD4 count of the baby at the various stages of development. Is this something that we can ensure? What is the proximity of an HIV testing centre to the 2.2 million ugandan babies born annually? As you can imagine, the presence of a lab is inconsequential if the reagents and test-kits are not present. In many areas where the labs are not present, regional hubs function to carry out the tests. A sample transportation network is critical for DBS samples for exposed infants, indeed for all children and mothers.
  3. One of the salient successes of this story is documentation – the presence of mind to notice something unusual at your job, and you take a keen interest in it, choosing to follow it up and ask the questions that some people may consider hard to ask. I wonder if we are able to take a keen interest in something scientifically unusual and cause it to be the centre of a full fledged research, as this case turned out to be.
  4. How about the patience to look at the numbers (facts and figures) 4 years later? In science, this institutional memory is very important, because it makes for very interesting research findings all the time. Every picture, every story, every record, as long as it is not treated with contempt, has the potential to reveal something to us if we listen to the numbers more closely. And yes, sometimes, its years later, but if we are keen, we will hear the numbers speak to us.

As the world of science grapples with the apparent set back, players and actors in the sector remain committed to advancing HIV/AIDS research. With programs that focus on HIV prevention and treatment as the best tools to end pediatric HIV international and national partners are making great strides toward eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV globally.

Right now, we know, that by providing a pregnant or breastfeeding  HIV positive woman ART we can almost completely eliminate the possibility that she will pass the virus onto her baby during pregnancy, child birth, or breastfeeding. However, every day 700 children become newly infected with HIV. We must quickly identify and begin treating these children to ensure they can lead healthy lives.

As a nation, our job isn’t over until no child has AIDS. Uganda must ensure that communities and health facilities have the tools they need and the resources to plan, implement, and sustain their HIV programs so that all families are reached with services. Otherwise, Uganda will never have a Mississippi Baby.

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