Doctors in California believe that they have cleared HIV from the blood of a nine-month-old who seems to have been born with the virus. Though they can't call it a "cure" or even say she is in remission because she continues to take medication, her doctors believe she has "sero-reverted to HIV-negative."
Last year at this time, doctors in Mississippi announced that they had cleared a two-year-old girl born with HIV of the virus by giving her high doses of anti-retroviral drugs within 30 hours of her birth. Now, details of another case—this time in Long Beach, California—have been released at an AIDS conference; doctors say that once again HIV has become undetectable in the blood of a small child. Doctors in the new case followed the protocol set in Mississippi, and many experts are finding the results to be promising.
Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) can suppress HIV to the point that the virus becomes virtually undetectable in a person’s blood. This treatment allows people with HIV to stay healthy for years and even decades, but it cannot be considered a cure because once a person stops taking his or her medications the virus quickly reappears in their blood. Scientist have discovered what they call “HIV reservoirs,” cells that hold the genetic code of HIV but are dormant and invisible to the immune system and drug regimes. These cells hide in the brain, bone marrow, genital tract, and other places in the body. If individuals stop taking their drug cocktails, the reservoirs are likely to become active and HIV can start replicating itself again.
When the Mississippi baby stopped taking her medication, however, the virus did not return. The infant’s mother received no prenatal care and did not know that she herself was infected when she had the baby. Doctors tested the baby’s blood after delivery and declared that she was HIV-positive. They put the baby on high doses of anti-retroviral drugs within 30 hours of her birth and she remained on this type of medication for about 18 months. Had the baby continued to be brought to her appointments, doctors would have kept her on the medication indefinitely, but she was lost to the system for almost six months and was not given her drugs during that time. Doctors were shocked when she returned and they realized that despite this absence of treatment she was for all intents and purposes free of the virus. They speculate that efforts to eradicate HIV from the body, which have never truly been successful in adults, may be possible in infants because treatment begins before HIV reservoirs are built. The Mississippi infant, now three years old, remains virus-free despite being off of all medications. Some experts question whether she was ever HIV-positive or if, instead, “the positive tests simply registered small amounts of the virus that had spilled over from the mother’s bloodstream during delivery.” Because they did not expect her to become a breakthrough case, her physicians did not save her blood and no new testing can be done, but they are convinced she was HIV-positive.
The Long Beach case provides some confirmation that this approach works, although the child, who is now nine months old, remains on her medications. The infant’s mother arrived at Miller Children’s Hospital in labor. She was mentally ill and had advanced AIDS, and though she had been given a prescription for anti-retroviral drugs that could have prevented her from infecting her fetus, she had not taken them. Physicians tested the child for HIV four hours after she was born, and both RNA and DNA for the virus were present in her spinal fluid and blood. They are convinced she was truly infected.
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Following the Mississippi protocol, doctors gave the baby high doses of three drugs used to suppress the virus immediately after birth. They then tested her blood extensively and found that the virus began to disappear after six days and was completely gone by day 11. This baby cannot be considered “cured” or even in remission, however, because she continues to take her medications. Despite the potential success in these two cases, it would be unethical to take the child off the drugs in order to see if HIV comes back. Her physicians say that if she remains virus-free as of the age of two, they might consider taking her off the drugs for a period of time to see what happens. In the meantime, they have run the most sensitive blood tests available and can find no virus that is capable of replicating. Her lead physician told the New York Times that she describes the baby as “having sero-reverted to HIV-negative.”
The truth is that science has in many ways solved the problem of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Had these mothers received adequate prenatal care (and taken their prescribed drug regimens), HIV infection in their infants could have been prevented and there would have never been a need to eradicate their bodies of the virus. In the United States, most pregnant women get the medication they need, but worldwide the number is only at 60 percent. These two cases, therefore, potentially provide a roadmap for “curing” babies who are born HIV-positive.
New studies are being planned to further test this concept. For example, a clinical trial set to begin soon will put up to 60 babies born HIV-positive on a drug regimen within 48 hours of birth to see if they, too, become virus-free. Dr. Anthony S. Fuaci, executive director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, told the New York Times that these results are important. “This could lead to major changes for two reasons,” he said. “Both for the welfare of the child, and because it is a huge proof of concept that you can cure someone if you can treat them early enough.”
Of course, with adults it is very hard to pinpoint the exact moment of infection and know what really is early enough.
Almost three years ago, the State of Indiana first charged Purvi Patel with both feticide and neglect of a dependent following Patel’s home delivery of what state doctors testified was a 25-week-old fetus. Today, there is still no clear picture of the events leading up to those charges. Based on the conflicting evidence presented at Patel’s seven-day trial, it’s not clear what Patel knew about her pregnancy, including how far along she was. It’s not clear what exactly happened that day in Patel’s bathroom. And, most importantly, there is no clear picture of whether the delivery resulted in a live birth.
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But on Monday, lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office argued to the Indiana Court of Appeals that none of those unknowns matter. Patel’s charges of feticide for unlawfully terminating her pregnancy and neglecting a live dependent were not contradictory. Quite simply, argued Indiana Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender, if there’s evidence that a person’s conduct contributed to the death of a fetus or a severely prematurely infant born alive that then dies, that person faces possible felony prosecution both for feticide and criminal neglect of a dependent—setting a disturbing potential precedent for pregnant people throughout the state.
The Indiana feticide statute makes it a felony for a person to “knowingly or intentionally terminate a human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” The statute is silent on whether a self-induced abortion falls under this category. Indiana prosecutors argue that it does and told the appeals court Monday that the jury verdict against Patel proved them right.
The state made a similar argument with Patel’s conviction for felony neglect of a dependent. According to the state, by taking abortion-inducing drugs, Patel created a situation that put her “dependent”—in other words, her fetus—in harm’s way. Once delivered alive, the state argued, Patel had a legal duty to immediately seek medical attention on its behalf, including clamping her umbilical cord immediately after delivery to prevent neonatal blood loss and calling 9-1-1 for emergency care. It made no difference, prosecutors said, that the medical evidence was contradictory as to whether there was a live birth at all, or what, if anything, Patel understood was happening at the time of the delivery.
Patel’s attorneys may disagree with the inferences made by the jury, state attorneys argued, but that doesn’t mean the law grants the court grounds to overturn the jury verdict.
It wasn’t clear to me at the end of oral arguments that the three-judge panel was buying the State’s argument. The judges pushed Meilaender hard on where the law should draw the line between taking nonprescribed abortion medications that produce a live birth where the baby then dies—as the state argued happened here—to drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, or taking any other host of actions that may help contribute to a miscarriage. The judges seemed to agree that it would be excessive to prosecute pregnant people for smoking, for example. The judges also appeared skeptical about the argument that the feticide statute doesn’t require the fetus to die in utero, and that even a live birth can and should be prosecuted under this statute if the accused person’s original intent was to terminate a pregnancy outside Indiana’s stringent legal abortion requirements.
But it also wasn’t clear they bought the argument of Patel’s attorney, Lawrence Marshall, that the state hadn’t met its burden of proof when it convicted her. Marshall stammered to keep the judges on point, refusing to answer whether federal constitutional precedent, from Roe v. Wade to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, would protect many other people from unchecked pregnancy policing under feticide laws. (Spoiler: The simple answer is no—as Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, to name a few, show).
The heart of the state’s negligence case against Patel rests on her alleged failure to seek care for a live birth. Yet Marshall could not specifically and directly answer the judges’ concerns that Patel, after allegedly cutting the umbilical cord during delivery, should have also immediately clamped or kinked it to prevent any blood loss to the fetus she just delivered. He did not note that it is unreasonable to expect any woman immediately following an extremely premature delivery to have the presence of mind to do such things, lest she face felony prosecution. He tried to point out that there was medical testimony at trial that at 25 weeks, severely prematurely born infants have only modest survival rates even when born at hospitals and immediately transferred to neonatal intensive care units, and tried to argue the state couldn’t prove that Patel had any idea a live birth had even happened. But all those counters appeared to fall flat on a panel of judges clearly willing to consider, and perhaps even accept, that Patel’s failure to kink her umbilical cord and call 9-1-1 immediately post-delivery was sufficient to convict her for felony neglect of a dependent.
Throughout the trial and the appeal, the state compensated for its lack of direct evidence about the situation by trying to redirect the jury’s focus to Patel’s “character,” which, prosecutors argued, helped inform the decision to convict her. Patel was in a relationship with a married man. Evidence at trial showed she had been texting back and forth with a friend concerning the pregnancy and her desire to terminate it, in part because of fears her conservative Hindu family would not support her. That’s both sexually provocative and naive, argued the state in its appellate brief—provocative because she was acting outside religious and social norms, and naive because “family would have loved her regardless and would have welcomed the baby, as it is their religious belief to love a child even if born out of wedlock and their religion is opposed to killing anyone or anything.”
Meanwhile, the state argued, the evidence that should be weighed in Patel’s favor did not matter. That included evidence at trial that showed Patel believed she was only about 12 weeks pregnant—not about 25 weeks—when she took the unprescribed abortifacient. Not important, argued the state. All that matters is her fetus was old enough to fall outside Indiana’s limit on 20-week abortions. Evidence at trial showed that Patel tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to navigate Indiana’s web of anti-choice restrictions before ordering abortion-inducing medications online; but that just demonstrates Patel had the right criminal intent to support the jury’s conviction, said Meilaender, not that those regulations are difficult for non-lawyers to navigate on their own.
In other words, argued Meilaender, the details that should normally be necessary to support a criminal conviction—details such as what Patel knew, and when—just don’t matter in this case.
Those details do matter. That’s why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected nearly identical arguments in the prosecution of Jenni Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who also terminated a pregnancy and was criminally prosecuted for it. Expecting patients to understand the intricacies of abortion restrictions or face criminal prosecution at its very core unduly burdens abortion rights, that court ruled.
It will likely be months before the Indiana Court of Appeals issues its opinion. And I’m not going to make any guesses about how this case turns out. But I will say that, despite all the unknowns in the Patel case, there are plenty of knowns that ultimately affect Patel and pregnant people in Indiana as a whole.
We know that Indiana law does not mandate sex education be taught in its schools. The Indiana Department of Education recommends its inclusion as part of a school’s comprehensive health education program. But that’s it. And for those schools that decide to offer some form of sex ed, there’s no requirement that the information provided be unbiased and medically accurate, let alone do anything other than stress abstinence-only sex ed. And of course, parents in Indiana have the option of opting out of sex ed entirely for their children should they so choose.
We also know that legal abortion in Indiana is extensively and severely restricted. First, any person seeking an abortion must receive state-mandated counseling that includes information designed to discourage the patient from having an abortion. That counseling must be done in person. Indiana law then requires a patient to wait an additional 18 hours after that counseling session before an abortion can be performed. That means, effectively, patients must make two separate trips to an abortion clinic to have the procedure. A patient must also undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion and during that ultrasound the provider must offer her the option to view the ultrasound image.
Indiana law also prohibits the use of telemedicine for medication abortion. Also, Indiana bans abortions after 20 weeks, with only a very narrow exception of when the patient’s life or physical health is at risk.
And if that patient can navigate the consent and waiting period requirements, how will they pay for the procedure? In Indiana, abortion is covered in private insurance policies only in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest, or the severely compromised health of the pregnant person. Individuals have the option of buying a separate abortion policy, but that, of course, is at additional cost.
What do Indiana’s sex ed requirements and abortion restrictions have to do with Patel’s conviction and appeal? Everything.Just like the fact that Patel, like Bei Bei Shuai before her, is not white and is not wealthy. A lack of comprehensive sex education means it’s increasingly likely other patients will, like Patel, have very little apparent understanding of the pregnancy process, particularly early on in pregnancy when indicators such as a missed period can be mixed. An increasingly draconian set of abortion restrictions means more and more patients like Patel will find themselves unable to access a legal provider or afford an abortion at all, which means that more and more patients like Patel will be forced into either attempting to self-terminate an unwanted pregnancy or carrying it to term.
Attorneys for the State of Indiana tried to tone down the “canary in a coal mine” aspect to Patel’s conviction. But there really is no denying it. During Monday’s arguments, they were pressing for the right to bring felony charges against women who terminate their own pregnancies. They insisted those prosecutions are exactly what the Indiana legislature intended when passing its feticide statute and further, such prosecutions advanced the state’s “significant” interest in protecting “unborn human life.”
Combine those arguments with the unavailability of comprehensive sex ed and the anti-choice restrictions in Indiana, and it’s clear that Patel’s case is absolutely a test case in the limits, if any, of state power to regulate pregnancies and their outcomes. Should Patel’s conviction be upheld, then the courts will have sent a very strong message to the the people of Indiana: The state expects and demands a healthy, live birth with each pregnancy, and failure to produce one could result in felony charges.
Thousands of prisoners in Louisiana’s county jails are routinely denied access to HIV testing and treatment, with five of the state’s 104 jails offering regular tests to inmates upon entry, according to a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
The same people who are at the highest risk of HIV—people of color, sex workers, and low-income communities, for instance—face disproportionate incarceration rates in Louisiana, meaning that low-income people of color, and especially Black people, are bearing the lion’s share of the burden of inadequate HIV care in county jails, called “parish” jails in Louisiana.
Louisiana has the nation’s second highest rate of new HIV infections, and the country’s third highest rate of adults and adolescents living with AIDS, according to the report. The state has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, locking up an estimated 847 people per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 478 prisoners per 100,000 people. On any given day, there are roughly 30,000 people in Louisiana’s parish jails, contributing to an incarceration rate that is 150 percent of the national average.
Many of those whose treatment has been interrupted while in jail were arrested for minor, non-violent crimes, per HRW.
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Both of these epidemics disproportionately harm Black people, who account for 70 percent of new HIV infections in Louisiana (compared to 24 percent for white people), and 66 percent of the state’s prisoners—even though Black people account for 32 percent of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents.
“This is not a coincidence,” Megan McLemore, a senior researcher at HRW and author of the report, told Rewire. “The history of the state of Louisiana has been, to say the least, disturbing in relation to African Americans.”
HRW interviewed more than 100 people for the report, from formerly incarcerated people to medical staff in parish jails to HIV service providers. What they found was a pattern of rights violations, including the failure of most parish jails to comply with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all inmates be tested for HIV upon entry at a corrections facility.
Jail officials reportedly told HRW that they avoid testing because they can’t afford to treat those who test positive: a course of medication for a single patient can fall in the range of $23,000-$50,000 per year. But the HRW report claims that failing to conduct proper testing, interrupting patients’ treatment plans, and neglecting to provide linkages to treatment centers for people leaving jails could end up costing the state much more in the long run.
Strict adherence to antiretroviral medication regimes has been found to greatly enhance successful management of HIV, the report said, by strengthening a person’s immune system and decreasing the amount of virus in the body, thereby reducing the risk of transmission. By denying inmates access to their medications, Louisiana’s parish jails are contributing to an already grave epidemic: the state is home to more than 20,272 people living with HIV, with half of them diagnosed with AIDS, according to the report.
Jail officials’ behavior heightens the stigma around HIV, advocates said. McLemore told Rewire that Louisiana’s inmate population represents some of the country’s most vulnerable and heavily policed communities.
“These are people who are already stigmatized—add HIV, and the situation becomes almost unbearable. So when jail officials intentionally avoid or neglect testing and treatment, they are not only adding to that stigma, they are actually being discriminatory,” McLemore said, adding that some caseworkers claimed their HIV-positive clients avoided disclosing their status to jail staff because they had no assurance that it would guarantee care.
Darren Stanley, a case manager at the Philadelphia Center in Shreveport, told HRW that half his clients have spent time in jail, and the majority of them are denied their medications on the inside. One of his clients, who spent three weeks in the Caddo Parish Prison in 2013, paid the ultimate price.
“I tried to get in touch with him but he was very sick without his medications,” Stanley told HRW. “He died of AIDS two weeks after he got out.”
A formerly incarcerated woman named Joyce Tosten who spoke to HRW claimed parish jail officers informed her that she would need to have her mother deliver any necessary HIV medications to the jail. But she couldn’t call her mother because she didn’t have phone privileges at the time. Other sources alleged that even when family or friends brought medications to the jail, they were never delivered.
The problem does not stop at incarceration. According to HRW, “release from parish jail is often a haphazard process consisting of whatever is left of their medication package, a list of local HIV clinics, or nothing at all.”
The report includes a series of recommendations such as setting aside adequate funding for HIV testing and care, training jail staff on effective treatment and management options, and strengthening links with local care providers and community-based centers for returning citizens.
Deon Haywood, executive director of Women With A Vision (WWAV), a New Orleans-based grassroots health collective responding to the HIV epidemic in communities of color, told Rewire that HRW’s recommendations were “spot on.”
“They speak to the conditions we have seen in the community for the past 26 years,” she said. “Through my work at WWAV and other New Orleans agencies, I’ve witnessed the failure of incarceration to better the community. We urge Louisiana to invest in education rather than criminalization, and shift the state’s resources and policies towards solutions that address the systematic inequalities that poor communities of color face on a daily basis.”
HRW’s report adds to a list of woes that Louisiana residents confront on a daily basis. The state recently ranked last on a nationwide index measuring social justice issues like poverty and racial disparities.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect Louisiana’s correct incarceration rate.