Breakthrough in battle with Aids, but questions remain over high cost of drugs in the developing world - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 4 March 2013

Breakthrough in battle with Aids, but questions remain over high cost of drugs in the developing world

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 4 March 2013

Darren Evans

Medical breakthroughs and miracle cures are announced with such regularity in the news that it’s easy to become cynical. In the last month alone the press has hailed “groundbreaking” new treatments for conditions as diverse as blindness, arthritis and paralysis, and promoted cures for everything from migraines to overeating.

But today’s announcement that an American child has been “cured” of HIV, the virus that leads to Aids, has made the global medical community sit up and take note. A baby girl born with the condition, transmitted by her mother during pregnancy, appears to have been cured after a programme of extra-strong medication.

The child, from Mississippi in the US, was given a triple dose of HIV drugs when she was just 30 hours old. The fast action appears to have stopped the virus taking root in the baby’s cells.

"I just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk and deserved our best shot," said Dr Hannah Gay, a paediatric HIV specialist at the University of Mississippi.

In the UK, the NHS has made it clear that this development does not represent a full-blown cure for the virus and that reports that it is are “overblown”.

However, the breakthrough does pave the way for other children to be similarly treated and offers hope for global efforts to eliminate HIV in children, especially in Aids-plagued African countries. More than two-thirds of all people living with HIV, 23.5 million, live in sub-Saharan Africa, including 91 per cent of the world’s HIV-positive children. Around 300,000 children were born with HIV in 2011, mostly in Africa where only around 60 per cent of infected pregnant women gain treatment that can keep them from passing the virus to their babies.

But there is no guarantee that the development will have any real consequences for the developing world. The cost of such HIV treatments have long been controversially high, making them unaffordable for many of the world’s poorest. And privately owned pharmaceutical companies – that make much of the progress in developing these drugs – say they wouldn’t be able to afford their research programmes without putting high price-tags on the medicines.

Countries such as South Africa have battled these arguments in court, but the number of people dying from the disease is still high.

In the US and other developed countries such births as the one in Mississippi are very rare because testing and treatment have been part of prenatal care for many years. And experts stressed that people should not get carried away by the breakthrough. "We can't promise to cure babies who are infected. We can promise to prevent the vast majority of transmissions if the moms are tested during every pregnancy," said Dr Gay.

Meanwhile, the little girl in Mississippi is now two and a half and has been off medication for about a year with no sign of infection. “You could call this about as close to a cure, if not a cure, that we’ve seen,” said Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health.

The only other person considered cured of the Aids virus was a man from San Francisco who underwent a very different treatment. Timothy Ray Brown had a bone marrow transplant from a donor who was naturally resistant to HIV. He has not needed HIV medication in the five years since.

Although there is no guarantee that the two-year-old girl will stay healthy, only traces of the virus’s genetic material have been found in her body and a team is now planning a study with more aggressive treatment of other high-risk babies.

Frequently asked questions about HIV and Aids

Q: What is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a long-term illness which over time, can develop into Aids whereby a person loses the ability to fight infection.

Q: What is the difference between HIV and Aids?
Aids (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a weakening of the immune system that is caused by HIV. It allows even common illnesses, such as flu, to become life-threatening.

Q: How do you catch HIV?
HIV is transmitted through the direct exchange of bodily fluids including blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. It is most commonly passed on during unprotected sex, but can also be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth – which is why medical intervention in the form of either drugs or caesarean sections are recommended for HIV positive pregnant women – through sharing needles and by blood transfusion. The virus is not passed on through ordinary social touch or contact, such as shaking hands or kissing.

Q: Who gets HIV?
Anyone can contract HIV. Contraction rates are highest in poor countries such as those in Africa, where there is little access to contraception and where education and public health systems are less able to raise awareness or offer treatment.

Q: What are the symptoms of HIV/Aids?
HIV typically has an incubation period of seven to 10 years, during which there may be no symptoms at all. The virus can only be detected by a blood test.

Q: Is there a cure for Aids?
There is currently no cure for HIV/Aids. Drug treatments are available which can reduce a patient’s susceptibility to Aids-related illnesses (such as pneumonia), thus prolonging and enhancing the quality of life. However, these drugs are expensive and not always available to those living in poor countries.

Q: What can be done to help fight HIV/Aids?
Prevention is the best form of defence. Practising safe sex, not sharing needles, spreading awareness and campaigning for equal and better access to education and treatment can help stop the spread of HIV/Aids. It is essential that regular testing is made more available, especially for pregnant women living in high risk areas. Continued medical research and tackling prejudice and misinformation are also important.

Resources for you

HIV/Aids introduction

  • A brief PowerPoint outlining some of the key facts relating to the causes and effects of HIV and Aids.

A Cry in the Darkness

  • ‘A Cry in the Darkness’ is a resource from The Salvation Army’s International Development Unit to help raise awareness of the issues surrounding HIV and Aids. Includes an assembly, lesson ideas and songs.

Understanding HIV

  • In this lesson pupils will develop a better understanding of the HIV virus and learn facts, tackle myths and misconceptions and find out about statistics on HIV.

Exploring HIV and Aids in developing countries

  • TES partner ActionAidSchoolsTeam shares a PowerPoint, sorting activity and a game to help pupils understand how HIV and Aids impacts on people in impoverished parts of the world.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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