Newborn contracted HIV from an open blister on his dad’s arm

A days-old baby boy contracted HIV from his father after coming into contact with fluid leaking from a lesion on his skin, a report has concluded.

The child, who is now nine years old, has been the subject of a lengthy investigation since being diagnosed amid fears of sexual abuse, because his father is HIV positive but his mother is not.

Researchers across Portugal, and a phylogenetics expert in the US, performed physical and genetic analyses, mapping out HIV samples from both father and son, who have not been identified.

They concluded that the boy had no signs of sexual abuse, and his virus appeared to have entered his system within the first few days of his life, before the father had been diagnosed with HIV.

By process of elimination, they concluded that the father must have passed the infection to the boy via fluid from an open blister on his skin.  

Researchers say the incredibly unusual case is hardly something the general public should fear, but it reminds the scientific community that the virus can be transmitted in unexpected ways. 

In an almost unheard-of case, a baby boy caught HIV from his father days after his birth in Portugal. After years investigating, scientists say the baby caught it from pus seeping from his dad’s arm (file image)

‘It’s a very unusual case,’ Dr Thomas Leitner, the only US scientist on the case told 

‘It shows us that it’s not something that will have a large impact on the HIV epidemic but it does show us that there are unusual ways of transmission.’

Dr Leitner, of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is a phylogenetics expert, trained in tracing the evolutionary history of organisms. It’s not the first time he’s been co-opted by Nuno Taveira, a microbiologist in Lisbon, to help out on a criminal investigation before. But this was unique.  

The child was diagnosed with HIV at the age of four in 2013. By that point, the father had been knowingly HIV positive for years, but his mother was HIV negative.    

HIV is a virus that infects the blood so it is typically transmitted sexually, via a needle, coming into contact with HIV-infected blood from an open wound, or gestationally if the mother is HIV positive. 

Mapping out samples from the boy and his father, Dr Leitner and his Portuguese colleagues were able to essentially age their viruses.  

The boy seemed to have been infected days after his birth in 2009. 

His father, it seems, had contracted HIV shortly before. At the time of the boy’s birth, the father was being treated for chicken pox and syphilis, which had developed to such an extent that he had blisters on his body. 

It was a perfect storm. The early stage of HIV is a critical point, when it is duplicating and spreading at such a rapid rate, ravaging a new immune system. 

It means the traces of the virus that leaked from his blisters were highly infectious. 

‘Although this type of father-to-son HIV transmission event is rare, it is important that the general public realize that HIV is present in most bodily fluids and can be transmitted in atypical and unexpected ways,’ says Thomas Hope, PhD, Editor-in-Chief of AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses and Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine.

‘In this case, the circumstances of fluids leaking from skin blisters with the high amount of HIV present in the first months of HIV infection led to the unfortunate infection of a newborn child.’

Since he had not been aware of his infection, and was cleared of sexual assault claims, the father was not charged with any crimes.