Reports from Mississippi of a child who contracted HIV from her mother at birth but who is now free of it must be the best news we’ve heard in a while.

Apparently, scientists and Doctors on a quest to cure HIV may have stumbled on a breakthrough in the fight against the disease. While this latest advance does not mean that the cure for AIDS has been discovered, it is progress that will no doubt open up new avenues at the very least for scientists to explore and help improve the treatment of babies infected at birth.

The baby in question was born with the disease because her mother had not been tested in early pregnancy, thus had not been put on antiretroviral drugs.

By the time doctors had realised that the mother was HIV positive, it was too late to implement the prevention package that would have prevented transmission of HIV from mother to child. Shortly after her birth, she was given a strong cocktail of antiretroviral drugs. The drugs are thought to have hit the virus so hard and so early that the disease all but disappeared. Although tests show that the baby no longer has HIV, scientists are careful not to label it a complete-cure but instead call it a functional-cure since traces of the virus, though inactive, still remain in the baby.

This is brilliant news for everybody across the globe but especially good news for our continent, which has been brought down to its knees by HIV and AIDS. While we often hear folk tales about people being cured of HIV and AIDS with traditional concoctions, there is no cure for HIV and AIDS and the only fully cured patient recognized worldwide is the Berlin-patient, Timothy Brown. He was considered cured of HIV and leukaemia five years after receiving bone marrow transplant to treat his leukaemia from a rare donor naturally resistant to HIV.

From the time HIV and AIDS descended on our world, it has devastated generations and decimated our continent especially. The grim reaper of all afflictions, HIV and AIDS has never discriminated against its victims as it overwhelms each with fevers, night sweats, swollen glands, chills, weakness, gross weight loss, chronic diarrhoea, constant colds, headaches, sore muscles, sore joints, stomach aches or skin rashes. Scientists have long maintained that there is a small group of individuals who have a genetic resistance to HIV, develop AIDS very slowly or never at all. These unique individuals seem to possess a genetic difference which prevents the virus from attacking certain immune receptors. In all our bodies, the group of cells and organs known as the immune system are meant to protect us by fighting viruses and infections. What makes HIV so vicious is that it attacks the immune system itself and has the additional ability to rapidly mutate in order to evade additional defences. This effectively leaves the body vulnerable to HIV and other infections.
For many of us in these parts of the world, the horror of HIV and AIDS has become all too real. Almost every household knows someone who has died or is suffering from the disease. In Nigeria, the spread of the disease that first appeared in 1986 is so fast that Health Organisations have rated us the 3rd most Aids vulnerable country. And it’s no wonder because over the last three decades Nigeria's healthcare system has deteriorated so badly due to political instability, corruption and a mismanaged economy. The entire country lacks basic healthcare provisions and trained medics robbing Nigerians of access to basic prevention, care or treatment services.

The 1996 HIV and Aids Emergency Action Plan (HEAP) programme established, was ab-initio lacking due to low spending on the plan and due to the government not consolidating its efforts. For example when over 600,000 people required antiretroviral treatment, only 17,000 received it. If the government was at any time focused in its efforts to curb the spread of the disease, it should have tackled the numerous fonts that facilitate the spread of HIV. This would include organising coordinated national blood supply systems, regulating the licentious activities of long-distance truck and commercial drivers, sanctioning harmful traditional practices, introducing safety regulations in barbers/salons and clamping down hard on commercial sex workers.

Although the world’s oldest profession is illegal in Nigeria there are millions of active commercial sex workers, with a high percentage being HIV positive. Since the vast majority of them do not use any form of protection, our legislature needs to implement stringent laws to curb this practice and the enforcement agencies need to enforce the laws vigorously.

Attitudes are shaped by knowledge and experience, therefore those with knowledge about HIV and AIDS must try to reach out about sexual health, abstinence, HIV and other means of contracting the disease. It won’t be easy because culturally and religiously our private society makes discussion on certain topics taboo and since the society generally regards immoral behaviour as being the main cause of the epidemic, stigma may prevent people living with the virus to willingly participate in discussions.

Our government can articulate its policy on HIV and AIDS more effectively by supporting NGOs, matching words with sustained action and commitment, sensitizing the society using the media, the religious communities and the performing arts. If we consider Uganda’s example, the success-story of the African fight against HIV, it’s clear that the epidemic is beatable. The success in Uganda was the result of a broad-based national effort backed up by involvement of religious and traditional leaders, NGOs and a firm political commitment that introduced same-day results for HIV tests, support for victims, distribution of protection tools, self-treatment kits for infections and sex education programmes all across schools and rural areas.

Undoubtedly Africa has borne the brunt of this disease. The West brands Africa as the original habitat of the virus. Though many are sceptical of this theory, the question of where HIV comes from still remains. One of the numerous theories regarding its origin is the hunter-theory, where HIV was thought to have passed to humans through the consumption of monkeys and bush-meat in Central Africa. The big anomaly with the Out-of-Africa theory is why was the first identified case of HIV in the West and not in Africa? While AIDS was identified to have killed a patient in the US in 1980, it did not appear in Africa until 1982. It is pure logic that with the population, polygamy and procreation present in Africa, had the disease first come to Africa before going to the West, it would have ravaged the continent long ago. When one considers the trend of its spread in Africa, one will notice that HIV and AIDS made its preliminary impact on the African continent in the countries which have a higher percentage of western tourism, suggesting that it was brought into Africa by Westerners already infected.

Another theory states that in the early 70s when the hepatitis B vaccine was developed in chimpanzees, it was tested on thousands of homosexual men who signed up as guinea pigs in the US. Even though scientists have downplayed any connection with HIV and the vaccine, over 20% of the men who volunteered for the experiments were discovered to be HIV-positive. Further theories suggest that three of the earliest known instances of HIV infection were much earlier than thought. The first was thought to be a plasma sample taken in 1959 from an adult male living in Central Africa, the second was found in tissue samples from an American teenager who died in St. Louis in 1969 and the third was found in tissue samples from a Norwegian sailor who died around 1976. A 1998 analysis of the plasma sample from 1959 has suggested that HIV was introduced into humans around the 1940s or the early 1950s. The problem with this theory is the unanswered question of why it did not spread then and if it didn’t spread, how did it appear a decade later in an individual situated on the opposite part of the world? The spread of HIV and AIDS could quite conceivably have been induced by a combination of many different events. The origin of HIV has puzzled everyone ever since the illness first came into light but most would probably agree it is important to understand the actual source of the virus in order to fight it. In the early days of the epidemic, disease control scientists were alleged to have traced the AIDS trail to Patient-O, a promiscuous Bi-Sexual Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas who was thought to have given HIV to multiple male and female partners globally, who then in turn transmitted it to others and rapidly spread the virus to locations all over the world.

is likely that we will never know how, when and where HIV actually originated from but what we do know is that it is a ruthless killer that humanity and each and every one of us must strive to contain.

The case of the baby girl has buoyed hopes for millions and if scientists can better understand and replicate what happened in her treatment, it could allow them to establish a cure for new-born babies infected with the disease. Real excitement is justified by this discovery, but in spite of the feat, we must keep in mind that there is still no cure for HIV and AIDS and any practical applications as far as the latest discovery are most likely a long way further down the line.

Written By Hannatu Musawa
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