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'Sperm Washing' Allows HIV-Positive Man to Father Virus-Free Baby - 2001-10-03

A Japanese woman, who was artificially inseminated with semen from her HIV-infected husband, has given birth to a healthy baby. The successful birth breaks new ground for reproductive technology in Japan.

A hospital in Western Japan said Tuesday that a baby was born HIV-free, even though the father is infected with the virus, which causes AIDS.

For the first time in Japan, doctors used a technique of sperm washing which removes the virus from the infected sperm, followed by artificial insemination. Sperm washing reduces the chance of infection to mother and baby to one in 10,000.

The hospital says that neither the mother nor baby contracted the virus. The child's father is a hemophiliac who contracted the disease from tainted blood products.

This technique of impregnating the partners of HIV-positive men was pioneered in Italy and has already been used successfully there and in several other countries. But it is a milestone for Japan, which is deeply conservative in its attitude toward using reproductive technologies.

"Japanese people admit that this and other reproductive technologies are wonderful tools," says Toshihiro Aono, professor emeritus at Japan's Tokushima University, "but they are still generally considered taboo." The professor says many Japanese believe that they are unnatural and worry what others will think of them and their children if such methods are employed.

A university ethics committee deliberated for at least seven months before it allowed the Japanese couple to try the procedure.

Professor Aono says that the committee was deeply troubled by the fact that this method still presents a risk of infection to the mother and child.

"Even though the risk is low," he says, "it is still there." So while this procedure paves the way for HIV-infected people to have babies, the professor says doctors must make sure that their patients are fully aware that there is a chance of contracting the virus.

Since the birth of the healthy baby this summer, two other Japanese couples are now expecting babies conceived by the same method.