Hopes for HIV cure revived by African child in remission

LONDON, July 24 (Reuters) - A South African child born with HIV has surprised experts by appearing to be effectively cured of the AIDS virus after just a year of treatment followed by eight and a half years drug-free.

Patients with HIV would normally need to stay on antiretroviral (ART) drugs for the rest of their lives to keep AIDS at bay. But this child, still off treatment and now almost 10 years old, has no signs of the disease.

This and other recent, isolated cases of remission have given additional hope to the 37 million people worldwide infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Yet experts urged caution, saying the case is extremely rare and does not suggest a simple path to a cure.

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In this aerial photograph made using a drone, students from Indian tribal school, Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS) participate in forming a red ribbon, the symbol of HIV/AIDS, in an attempt to make a Guinness Book record on the occasion of World AIDS Day, in Bhubaneswar on December 1, 2016. World AIDS Day is celebrated on December 1, every year to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and to demonstrate international solidarity in the face of the pandemic.

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Today, we honor those who are leading the fight against HIV/AIDS. Because of them, an AIDS-free generation is now within our reach.

An Indonesian woman holds a red ribbon during commemoration of World AIDS Day in Medan, Indonesia, Dec. 1, 2016.

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A participant takes part in commemoration ceremony near a monument in memory of AIDS victims in Kiev, Ukraine May 15, 2015. The event is to mark the World Memory Day of people who died of AIDS.

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A man walks on the porch of the Greek parliament building, illuminated with the image of a red ribbon to mark World AIDS Day, in Athens, Greece, December 1, 2016.

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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a World AIDS Day flag raising ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 1, 2016.

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Aerial view of college students crowding together to form a shape of a red ribbon to raise awareness for the AIDS pandemic at Chemistry and Chemical Engineering college of Yangzhou University on December 1, 2016 in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province of China. About 100 college students of Yangzhou University hand out red ribbons and wear masks with red ribbons to show affection for HIV-infected people in the World AIDS Day 2016.

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A participant lays flowers as he takes part in a ceremony to mark World AIDS Day near a monument in memory of AIDS victims in Kiev, Ukraine December 1, 2016.

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Thalassaemia and Aids Prevention Society releasing fanoosh during special aids awareness drive on World Aids Day at Babughat on December 1, 2016 in Kolkata, India.

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Prince Harry and singer Rihanna get their blood samples taken for an live HIV test, in order to promote more widespread testing for the public at the 'Man Aware' event held by the Barbados National HIV/AIDS Commission on the eleventh day of an official visit on December 1, 2016 in Bridgetown, Barbados. Prince Harry's visit to The Caribbean marks the 35th Anniversary of Independence in Antigua and Barbuda and the 50th Anniversary of Independence in Barbados and Guyana.

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10,000 red balloons are released as part of awareness activities on World AIDS Day at the Institute of Infectious Diseases Emilio Ribas in Sao Paulo, Brazil on December 01, 2016.

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A woman with a red ribbon symbolizing the fight against the HIV virus takes part in a ceremony to mark World AIDS Day near a monument in memory of AIDS victims in Kiev, Ukraine December 1, 2016.

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The new HIV/AIDS Memorial, designed by the French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, is unveiled on World AIDS Day in Amsterdam, on December 1, 2016. The artwork represents a Chinese abacus for counting down to 2030, the year the AIDS epidemic should end, according to the UN Millennium Development Goals.

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Aerial view of college students crowding together to form a shape of a red ribbon to raise awareness for the AIDS pandemic at Chemistry and Chemical Engineering college of Yangzhou University on December 1, 2016 in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province of China. About 100 college students of Yangzhou University hand out red ribbons and wear masks with red ribbons to show affection for HIV-infected people in the World AIDS Day 2016.

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People walk through a new memorial to honor victims of the AIDS epidemic which was dedicated on World AIDS Day on December 1, 2016 in New York City. The 18-foot-high steel sculpture and park sits across the street from the former St. Vincent's Hospital site in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, where many of the early victims of AIDS were diagnosed.

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10,000 red balloons are released as part of awareness activities on World AIDS Day at the Institute of Infectious Diseases Emilio Ribas in Sao Paulo, Brazil on December 01, 2016.

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A Nepalese girl decorate her head with AIDS symbol Red Ribbon during celebration of 29th World AIDS Day in Kathmandu, Nepal on Thursday, December 1, 2016. World AIDS Day is celebrated worldwide on December 1st of every year to raise the awareness in the fight against HIV.

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A Nepalese youth shows AIDS symbol Red Ribbon on celebrates of 29th World AIDS Day in Kathmandu, Nepal on Thursday, December 1, 2016. World AIDS Day is celebrated worldwide on December 1st of every year to raise the awareness in the fight against HIV.

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"It's a case that raises more questions than it necessarily answers," said Linda-Gail Bekker, president of the International AIDS Society (IAS), which is holding a conference in Paris this week.

"It does raise the interesting notion that maybe treatment isn't for life. (But) it's clearly a rare phenomenon."

The child, whose name and gender were not disclosed, was part of a clinical trial in which researchers were investigating the effect of treating HIV-positive babies in the first few weeks of life, and then stopping and starting the ART medicines whilst checking whether their HIV was being controlled.

The United Nations HIV/AIDS agency said last week that 19.5 million people - more than half of the 37 million patients with HIV - are now on treatment.

The vast majority of patients with HIV suffer an increase in the amount of the virus circulating in the body if they stop treatment, but this child was different, the South African researchers said.

"To our knowledge, this is the first case of sustained virological control from a randomized trial of ART interruption following early treatment of infants," they said in a summary of findings presented at the IAS conference on Monday.

The baby contracted HIV from its mother. Treatment with ART started when it was almost nine weeks old but was interrupted at 40 weeks when the virus had been suppressed, and the child was monitored regularly for any signs of relapse.

"At age 9.5 years, the child was clinically asymptomatic," the researchers said.

Sharon Lewin, an HIV expert at the University of Melbourne and co-chair of the IAS's HIV Cure and Cancer forum, said the case threw up possible insights into how the human immune system can controls HIV replication when treatment is interrupted.

Yet in terms of the scientific search for a cure for HIV and AIDS, she told Reuters, it appeared only to confirm previous reports of similarly rare cases.

"We know that very rarely, people who have had treatment and stopped it are then able to control the virus."

The HIV/AIDS pandemic has killed around 35 million people worldwide since it began in the 1980s.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; additional reporting by Ben Hirschler; editing by John Stonestreet)

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