Risk and Reward

Sam Kittner

When Dr. Lynne Mofenson came to the National Institutes of Health in 1989, there were more than 2,000 new pediatric AIDS cases a year reported in the United States. That number is now less than 100 per year. Creating an AIDS-free generation has become a national goal, and Mofenson’s seminal work has helped to almost eliminate the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to child in the United States. 

Mofenson, chief of the Pediatric, Adolescent and Maternal AIDS branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was named the 2012 Federal Employee of the Year for her role in a bold and controversial clinical trial that used AZT to prevent pregnant mothers from passing HIV to their babies.

The clinical trial was the beginning of a long-term collaboration among researchers—called the Pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials Group—that conducted a series of successful studies to identify and optimize strategies to block mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the primary way children become infected.

Despite the risks, Mofenson says launching the study was “a no-brainer.”

“It was a horrible disease, killing mothers and babies. We had to do something,” she says.

The clinical trial demonstrated a two-thirds reduction in the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child, down from 25 percent to 8 percent, turning the tide on pediatric AIDS. “We were quite amazed that it worked so well,” says Mofenson, who received her Service to America medal from the Partnership for Public Service. Through U.S. programming and funding to other countries, it is estimated that 200,000 infant HIV infections were prevented last year.

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