Chief Science Correspondent
Sixteen months ago, the world celebrated the news that doctors had conquered the HIV virus.
"Scientists Report First Cure Of HIV In A Child, Say It's A Game-Changer," NPR blogger Richard Knox wrote on March 3, 2013. A young girl from Mississippi had been born with HIV, and doctors began an aggressive treatment program involving a cocktail of anti-viral drugs within hours of her birth. Within a few months, the virus was no longer detectable in the child's blood. When the mother unexpectedly stopped bringing her daughter in for checkups for six months, the virus did not return. Therefore, doctors determined that the girl had truly been cured of her infection.
However, the virus unexpectedly returned during a blood test earlier this month. The girl, who is now nearly four years old, was put back on treatment immediately. Although the virus no longer shows up in blood tests, doctors believe she may have suffered damage to her immune system.
First of all, I don't know why any mother would choose to put her child's health at risk by denying her medical treatment... Oh, wait. That's right. This actually happens every day.
However, this incident offers a valuable example of how science reporting can skew a subject, ultimately misinforming readers. The NRP article went on to make the claim that this treatment regimen could serve as a cure for other infants born with the virus, or even adults that suspect they might have been infected.
It turns out that this treatment was far from a cure. In fact, doctors now believe that the child was able to stay in remission for six months not because of the treatment, but because of some other factor unique to this patient. I now strongly suspect that this child was not the first to be treated against the disease since infancy. She may have not even been the only child to discontinue the treatment. Her case made the news because doctors were anxious to stand behind their success, and reporters were more than happy to sensationalize the story.
Science articles with headlines claiming major discoveries and medical cures are often exaggerations of the actual situation. Did a laboratory test find the cure for diabetes? It may have just been a controlled experiment conducted on mice, with extremely preliminary results. Is an article warning of the re-creation of a deadly virus? It's likely just one of many routine projects that take place under secure protected conditions every day.
Science journalism is extremely valuable in its ability to communicate modern science to a general audience. However, it is important that we remember that these sensationalist headlines are designed to draw readers in. If in doubt, read a variety of articles on the subject, and look for the original literature on the experiment if possible.
Hopefully, we will find a cure for HIV, or at least improve treatment methods to improve the quality of life for patients. However, this failed case suggests that we haven't quite made it there yet.