HIV Baby ‘Cure’ Has Ties To Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation In Los Angeles

Huffington Post | March 5, 2013

Journalist Anna Almendrala writes about EGPAF's personal connection to the Mississippi toddler cured of HIV. Almendrala speaks with Susie Zeegan, co-founder of EPAF and Elizabeth Glaser's close friend, about Elizabeth's legacy and shares Zeegan's reaction to the possibility of a cure.

LOS ANGELES -- When doctors announced that a Mississippi toddler born with HIV was functionally cured, the news sent shockwaves around the globe.
But the medical marvel hit close to home for a few residents in Los Angeles -- friends and associates of the late AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser. Glaser lost her battle with AIDS 19 years ago, but the work she began to eradicate pediatric AIDS worldwide can still be felt through the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, a nonprofit research organization she founded after her daughter succumbed to AIDS in 1988. In fact, her legacy is imprinted on the so-called Mississippi miracle.

Two doctors involved in the Mississippi toddler's case are recipients of the Elizabeth Glaser Scientist Awards, generous five-year grants of $700,000 that Glaser's foundation gave to leaders in the field of pediatric AIDS research from 1996 to 2006.

Dr. Deborah Persaud of Johns Hopkins Children's Center received the Elizabeth Glaser Scientist Award in 2005. She led the investigation to determine that the toddler's HIV virus was in remission. She conducted the investigation with Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who was an award recipient in 1997.

The connection to the Mississippi medical case makes Susie Zeegen, one of Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation's co-founders, immensely proud.
"We were investing in people, and the people that got this award were above and beyond in their zeal and their promise to be able to come up with new and innovative approaches to the problems that children face," said Zeegen in an interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "I'm sure [Glaser] would be beyond proud and happy as am I."

Zeegen is still awestruck at the apparent "cure." Since news about the toddler broke on Sunday, she has been busy collecting every single article written about the baby. She could only think of one word to describe her reaction: "Wow."

"My overall reaction is of great joy and great optimism," Zeegen said. And in the global fight to eradicate pediatric AIDS, a little bit of optimism couldn't hurt. Currently, an estimated 600,000 babies are born each year with HIV worldwide.

But because of her decades of work with Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Zeegen is cautious about forecasting what the toddler's cure may mean for pediatric AIDS worldwide.

"What happened in Mississippi is an impetus to get us all charged up again about being able to really and truly eradicate HIV from children," Zeegen said. "There's a ton of work that has to happen, and we all know that."

Chip Lyons, president and CEO of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, echoed Zeegen's enthusiasm and caution.

"The case needs to be very carefully examined," said Lyons. The foundation is focusing on cutting rates of perinatal HIV infection around the globe, especially in India and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Lyons, based in Washington, couldn't help but give part of the credit for this global movement to Los Angeles, Glaser's home.

"Philanthropists, donors, friends, and particularly the LA community -- there was a remarkable rallying around their friend, who was still fighting for herself, fighting for her son, and fighting to get kids on the agenda," said Lyons.

Glaser founded the organization in 1988 after the death of her 7-year-old daughter, Ariel. When Glaser gave birth to Ariel in 1981, she unknowingly contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and then passed on the disease to Ariel through breastfeeding. Her son, Jake, also subsequently contracted HIV in utero. It wasn't until Ariel started suffering unexplained symptoms that doctors determined all three of them had HIV.

After Ariel died, Glaser was determined to save her son from the same fate. Together with the help of friends Zeegen and Susan Delaurentis, Glaser mined her Hollywood industry contacts (her husband was actor/director Paul Michael Glaser) to raise money and awareness about pediatric AIDS during a time that researchers weren't studying HIV-affected families or pediatric formulations of drug treatments. Now Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation has offices in 15 countries and is working on a global scale to bring down the rates of perinatal HIV transmission.