Early treatment of HIV-positive infants significantly improves their health

HIV-positive newborns who begin antiretroviral therapy within hours or days after birth have better preserved immune systems and a much smaller viral reservoir—the hidden pool of virus that can rebound after treatment is stopped—than HIV-positive infants who start treatment at a more typical four months of age, according to a new study.

In Botswana, where the study was conducted, about 24% of all women are HIV-positive, and an estimated 300-500 babies are infected with the virus every day in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a November 27, 2019 Reuters article.

The result is a huge health care and human burden. “Without treatment, 50% of HIV-infected children progress to death within two years,” said study co-author Roger Shapiro, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Next year, the research team hopes to enroll some of the children in a trial in which they’d receive protective antibodies specifically engineered to neutralize the HIV virus, which could help them control their infections without the need for lifelong treatment.

Two other Harvard Chan School researchers—Gbolahan Ajibola, a study coordinator at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, and Kathleen Powis, research associate in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases—were co-authors of the study.

Read the Reuters article: Treating HIV-infected infants very early substantially improves health: study

Read an op-ed by Shapiro and Ajibola in The Conversation: Treating HIV in the tiniest babies could have huge positive implications for their future

Read a STAT News article: For babies born with HIV, start treatment right away, study says