The doctor responsible for finding a "functional cure" for a Mississippi toddler infected at birth with HIV once served as a Baptist missionary in Africa, where her work with AIDS patients helped direct her medical career. Dr. Hannah Gay led a team of doctors who announced the medical breakthrough last week.
"The affection, the love that she has for the families and the children, the commitment she has, all [stem] from her faith,” Paul Gay told Baptist Press. “She has a dedication that flows from her relationship with God.”
The Gays served as missionaries in the Horn of Africa for 25 years before settling down in Mississippi. After serving in the mission field, Hannah Gay started working part-time at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s division of pediatric infectious diseases. There, she worked on a program to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to newborns.
"Her interest in HIV has always just stemmed from her love of children and her heart's desire to use her gifts to help as many as she could,” her husband said. “She threw herself fully into it and was determined to learn all she could to do the best she could for the children that came under her care. That's been the driver."
Two and a half years ago, Gay helped treat a child whose mother tested positive for HIV during labor. In those situations, HIV treatments doesn’t usually start until doctors confirm the child is HIV positive. But Gay decided not to wait. She put the child on three drugs within 30 hours.
"I just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk, and deserved our best shot," she said.
Experts say the swift and strong remedy killed the virus before it could create “hideouts” in the child’s immune system. Once hideouts form, a person who is HIV-positive can’t stop taking their medication. If they do, the virus releases again from these secret cellular pockets.
But the child's mother eventually stopped bringing her to the clinic for checkups and stopped giving her medication. When doctors found the little girl again and she returned for testing, doctors found no active trace of the virus. They declared her functionally cured.
Gay told CNN the medical team will have to do further testing to know if the early drug therapy is a replicable cure for other children. In the meantime, she urged children and adults who are currently HIV positive to continue therapy.