FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As the international community observes World AIDS Day on Friday, doctors in South Florida confront a challenging reality: More women locally are getting HIV. A percentage of those women will become pregnant and give birth to babies who are infected.
“We know how to prevent HIV in babies,” said Dr. Lisa-Gaye Robinson, HIV medical director and principal investigator for clinical research at Broward County’s Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center. “We just need to find the pregnant women who are infected, get them into care, and on medications so the virus is undetectable.”
For women, the stigma prevents many from being tested and treated, Robinson says.
At Broward’s CDTC, 608 women, children and infants with HIV are being treated. Social workers encourage the pregnant women to attend prenatal care appointments and take their medications to prevent babies from being born with HIV. They also take the women to doctor’s appointments and keep in contact with them throughout pregnancy.
Robinson said the center’s vigilance with its pregnant patients has led to a less than 1% transmission rate from mother to baby over the last five years. “It’s supposed to be zero. Our goal is for every baby to be negative,” she said.
In 2021, more than 26% of new infections in Florida were women, however testing rates in women tend to be low.
In addition, 436 babies had perinatal exposure to HIV in Florida in 2021: Four of them were born with HIV.
For now, babies born with HIV must take a regimen of antiviral medications for their entire lives to keep their HIV levels undetectable. Robinson said a clinical trial in which her center is participating could put an end to that lifetime need.
The center is enrolling babies in the “cure study” which involves giving early intensive treatment to HIV infected infants. with the goal of suppressing the virus to spare a newborn a lifetime of taking medication.
“Once a baby is infected, a small reservoir of virus can lay dormant in the body,” Robinson explains. “If we start the baby on medication within hours of birth, we hope it will decrease the size of the reservoir formed in the baby or eliminate it. Our hope is that five or 10 years from now we can wean the child off medications indefinitely.”
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