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New AIDS Drug Protects Infants

Scientists working in Uganda have discovered a new breakthrough drug that shows vast improvement over the current drug regimen, using AZT, to protect babies from the AIDS virus. The drug has far reaching implications in countries hardest hit by AIDS, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin.

Just one dose of a drug called nevirapine given to pregnant women and their newborn babies during labor cut transmission of the disease by almost fifty percent, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday.

If developing countries adopt the therapy, it could prevent up to 400,000 newborns a year from contracting HIV at birth, government scientists estimated.

Because it requires far fewer doses, the nevirapine treatment also should be at least 20 times cheaper than the AZT therapy now recommended for pregnant women in developing countries, said the NIH.

The U.S. government funded the Ugandan study as part of a hunt for ways to reduce the cost of preventing AIDS in the world's poorest and hardest-hit countries. The United Nations estimates that 1,800 HIV-infected babies are born daily in developing countries. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, up to 30 percent of pregnant women are infected with HIV.

The treatment could also be used to prevent the spread of AIDS to children in poor American communities.

Doctors have known for about five years that administering AZT during pregnancy lowers the chances that HIV-infected mothers spread the virus to their babies. Drugs in developing countries are costly and generally inaccesible, Kaledin says. An AIDS diagnosis is usually a death sentence.

So scientists experimented with lower doses of AZT, and last year reported that the cheaper option of giving AZT just during labor and then for a week following birth can protect babies, too, although not as well as longer AZT treatment.

The new study, however, found that a single dose of nevirapine given to the mother during labor, followed by a single dose given to the newborn within three days of birth, actually worked better than AZT treatment.

The study examined 308 mothers and their infants who got standard short-course AZT to 310 mothers and babies who got the nevirapine treatment.

Just 13.1 percent of the nevirapine-treated babies became infected with HIV, compared with 25.1 percent of the AZT-treated babies.

"The implications of this study for developing countries, where 95 percent of the AIDS epidemic is occurring, are profound," said Dr. Brooks Jackson of Johns Hopkins University, who led the study.

The findings are preliminary, however. Scientists will continue to study the babies until they are 18 months old. Even if they escape HIV at birth, babies still can become infected through their mothers' breast milk.

A study ongoing in the United States and Europe also is determining whether adding nevirapine to the longer AZT treatment that women in wealthy countries now receive would prove more efective for them.

Nevirapine is sold in the United States under the brand name Viramune.

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