By Christopher J. Leitten (CI Intern—Geneva, Switzerland) and Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo
It seemed like a miracle when a baby born to a mother with HIV seemed to be “cured” of the virus after being given an initial strong combination of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) after birth.
The child’s mother had not received prenatal care and thus was not diagnosed as living with the infection until she was about to give birth. Thus, only at that time, did the mother receive treatment herself.
In an effort to stop multiplication of the the virus in the infant’s tiny body. Doctors administered ART 30 hours after the girl was born and continued treatment for 18 months. AT that time, the mother decided to take her child off medicines and did not seek any medical exams for the child for a period of more than one year.
When the child was 30 months of age, the mother once again sought treatment. Doctors expected that the amount of virus in the child’s blood would have drastically increased as a result of her withdrawal from treatment, but there was no evidence of virus in her blood This caused much celebration and enthusiasm in the AIDS community.
However, the most recent treatment developments tell a grim story for this child. After being taken off treatment and regarded as “cured”, HIV was recently detected in child’s blood. Once again, ART has been re-initiated for the “Mississippi Baby”. This situation clearly demonstrates the complexity and challenges of HIV treatment and prevention among children.
Despite the fact that ART mothers living with HIV has drastically decreased the possibility of mother-to-child transmission, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants born to such mothers be placed on anti-retroviral treatment at least until the mother has discontinued breastfeeding and until there are clear indications, through laboratory testing, to show that the infants have not acquired the virus.
Caritas Internationalis (CI) is deeply sensitive to this need and, since 2009, has advocated for effective action to prevent the virus being passed from mothers to their babies. Thus the Caritas “HAART for Children” (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy) campaign was launched on International Women’s Day 8 March 2009, and advocates for early treatment with child-friendly, appropriate dosing for children who have acquired the virus during their time in the mother’s womb, during the birth process, or through breastfeeding. The CI HAART for Children Campaign urges governments and pharmaceutical companies to develop and provide child-friendly HIV medicines as well as low-cost/low-technology testing methods to diagnose HIV and the co-infection of TB among children.
In order to stimulate attention from governments and pharmaceutical companies, Caritas initiated a child advocacy program, the Prescription for Life Letter Writing Campaign, which encourages children to write letters to governments and drug companies to advocate for children with HIV across the world. This campaign has seen continued success. Children from Australia, Africa, Europe, and other regions of the world have written to governments and pharmaceutical companies to raise awareness for such a pressing issue and call for action to be done.
As shown by the “Mississippi Baby” and the Caritas HAART for Children Campaign, the early treatment and diagnosis of HIV can make a world of difference in bettering the health and prolonging the lives of children across the world.