| JACKSON, Mississippi/CHICAGO, Illinois, March 6
JACKSON, Mississippi/CHICAGO, Illinois, March 6 (Reuters) -
T he doctor who cured an HIV infected baby for the first time is
happier talking to children than to adults and is finding all
the attention since the news came out a little overwhelming.
Dr. Hannah Gay and colleagues Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga of the
University of Massachusetts and Dr. Deborah Persaud of Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore reported on the child's case at
a medical meeting in Atlanta on Sunday.
"The breakthrough has been exciting and I'm very hopeful
that that's going to lead to future research that will give us
some answers," said Gay, a Mississippi pediatrician and
soft-spoken mother of four adult children.
But the attention is difficult for a woman "much more
comfortable talking to children than adults," said her husband,
Paul Gay. "She didn't anticipate this kind of explosion of
Dr. Gay, a 59-year-old native of Jackson, Mississippi, likes
to spend time designing needle points, singing in her church
choir and reading theology or medical literature when she's not
working 12-hour days treating patients, in a state with the
nation's highest poverty rate.
"She is the most unlikely person in the world to be getting
this kind of international attention, really," said Jay
Richardson, her former pastor at the Highland Colony Baptist
Church. "You don't ever hear her talking about herself or trying
to promote herself in any way. She's a quiet, humble person.
Extremely intelligent. Very committed to her faith. Very
involved in her church. Very committed to teaching children the
Except for six years working in Ethiopia as a missionary,
Dr. Gay has spent the bulk of her academic and professional
career at the University of Mississippi, where she received her
undergraduate and medical degrees and met her husband of 37
years. She has worked the better part of her career at the
university's medical center serving the state's youngest victims
During that time, Dr. Gay has published several articles
about ways to keep mothers from passing HIV infection to their
babies and participated in the federally sponsored Pediatric
AIDS Clinical Trials Group, which studied the use of the
aggressive treatment of children who are at high risk of
Her daughter Ruth Gay Thomas says as an AIDS specialist her
mother has had to fight the battles of her patients, overcoming
access to healthcare and the stigma that comes along with being
infected with HIV in the United States.
"She practices compassion and huge, unimaginable amounts of
patience with her patients and their families," Thomas said.
"She really has to embody a whole lot more than just the smart
doctor that knows the right medications to give."
To treat her own rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Gay takes
medicine that affects her immune system. "She has that in common
with her patients, but it's been a problem because with her
compromised immune system, she can't have as much of a hands-on
touching of her patients that was always so satisfying for her,"
her husband said.
When a rural hospital in Mississippi delivered a premature
baby girl in July 2010 from a mother who had just tested
positive for HIV during labor, it was only natural that they
would turn to Dr. Gay. The child's mother had not received any
prenatal care, nor had she gotten any treatment for her HIV
infection, putting the baby at high risk of becoming infected.
Dr. Gay chose to start the baby on the full treatment
regimen of three potent drugs when she was just 30 hours old,
even before the child's infection was confirmed.
It was a bold move. Most babies exposed to HIV in the womb
or during labor would have been given a six-week course of one
or two drugs intended to reduce the risk of acquiring infection
until tests could confirm she was infected.
"The doctor made a judgment call that the risks for this
baby were so high that they were going to assume the baby was
infected," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National
Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the
National Institutes of Health or NIH.
Some critics have questioned Dr. Gay's decision, which may
have exposed the child to the risk of toxic medications without
confirmation of her infection.
"This was a gutsy call that turned out to be correct," said
Fauci, adding that if it had turned out that the baby was not
infected, they could have withdrawn the drugs. "They made the
Dr. Gay continued to treat the child until January 2012,
when she was 18 months old and her mother stopped bringing the
child in for appointments. Gay's team tracked her down in the
fall of 2012, but the mother had not given her child any HIV
medication since January.
Before restarting treatment, Gay did several tests, fully
expecting that the virus had come roaring back. But none of the
tests detected the virus. That's when she brought in colleagues
Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts and Persaud of
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who did a series of
ultrasensitive tests. They were only able to find trace amounts
of genetic material from the virus, but nothing capable of
rekindling the infection.
The child, now 30 months old, remains off medication and
continues to fare well. "We can't find any virus to treat at
this point," Dr. Gay said.
She said it is not clear what the child's story will mean in
the wider scheme of HIV research, but she hopes it may lead to a
cure for other babies infected at birth.
"I guess the message that I want to get across to the public
very strongly is, we don't know yet if we can create the same
outcome in other babies." she said. "It's far too early to draw
too many conclusions. There's not a cure in sight this week."
Dr. Gay said she is glad that this is happening in
Mississippi and hopes it boosts the state's reputation.
"But it's a whole lot bigger than this one child, the
University Medical Center or the state," she said. "It may take
a long time, but I hope it will point us in the right direction
to come up with a cure we can consistently apply to other babies
Colleagues at the medical center are planning a celebration
for Dr. Gay to "let her know how proud we are," said Amy Smith,
a nurse practitioner who works with the doctor. "She's the type
that wouldn't want a big fuss made about her, but we're going to
do it anyway."
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Emily Le Coz; Editing by
Jilian Mincer and Claudia Parsons)