Dr. Deborah Persaud (Photo: Johns Hopkins/AP)
A two-and-a-half-year girl in the United States, who was born with HIV, appears to have been cured.
She was born to an HIV-positive woman in Mississippi, who only found out she had HIV after a standard test came back positive during labour.
As a result, the child had a high risk of contracting the virus, so doctors started treating her just hours after she was born.
They gave the baby a cocktail of three standard HIV-fighting drugs before they even got test results confirming the baby was also infected.
Normally, a baby with HIV is given only one antiretroviral drug.
It turns out the baby did have HIV. But the drug cocktail has "functionally cured" her, according to a team of doctors at Johns Hopkins Children's Centre in Baltimore.
29 days after she was born, the virus was undetectable, and it hasn't returned.
"This is a proof of concept that HIV can be potentially curable in infants," said the lead doctor Deborah Persaud.
The child continued treatment for 18 months, at which point mother and child "temporarily quit returning and stopped treatment," according to CBC News.
Several months later, the girl underwent more tests and there was no sign of the virus in her blood.
Then, ten months after the end of treatment, a battery of highly sensitive tests found only small remnants of genetic material that doesn't appear able to replicate itself.
So far, the child is HIV-free.
According to Dr. Hannah Gay, the pediatric specialist at the University of Mississippi who first treated the child, the mother is "quite excited for her child."
So what does this mean? Is there a cure for HIV on the horizon?
"This case starts to make the research community, clinicians and patients think that hopefully in the future, a cure for HIV is something that might be a realistic goal," said Dr. John Fraser from the Nuffield Department of Medicine at Oxford University, reported the Telegraph.
"The implications of this are that it tells us that we need to research into a cure with stronger funding and greater drive."
Experts caution, though, that no one who is currently taking anti-HIV drugs should change or reduce their dosage.
"It is far too early for anyone to try stopping effective therapy just to see if the virus comes back," said Dr. Gay.
Dr. Persaud's team believes the child was cured because the treatment was very powerful and administered so soon after birth. The drugs were given to the baby when she was only 30 hours old.
It's believed the treatment wiped out the virus before it could form hideouts in the body.
Now, the team is looking at the implications for other kids.
"Our next step is to find out if this is a highly unusual response to very early antiretroviral therapy or something we can actually replicate in other high-risk newborns," Dr. Persaud told The Guardian.
In the developed world, transmitting HIV from mother to child has become fairly rare.
Drug treatments are available that effectively limit the risk of a baby being born with the virus to one per cent. About 200 children are born with HIV in Canada each year.
But globally, about 1,000 HIV-infected babies are born each day, with about 9 out of 10 children who are infected with HIV or AIDs living in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Avert.org.
In 2011, UNAIDS found that 330,000 children worldwide were infected with HIV, and about 3 million children are currently living with the virus.
Doctors say more research is needed to figure out whether the higher dose of drugs that the baby in Mississippi received could be helpful in other cases, CBC reports.