Up to 3.7 million kids (under age 19) are infected with HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS. The vast majority of cases are in sub-Saharan Africa; in fact, it's the leading cause of death among preteens and teens there. HIV damages your immune system, so you can't fight infections and some cancers well.
But with the right combination of drugs and loving support, kids with HIV can grow up to live long, fulfilling lives.
Most children who have HIV got it from their mothers when they were pregnant, during the birth process, or from breastfeeding. Women who are tested, and then stick with treatment if they're positive, greatly lower the chance of passing the virus to their babies. This is the best way to prevent HIV in children.
Kids in communities affected by AIDS who have lost parents and family members are also more vulnerable to HIV infection. They may lack caregivers, access to school, or the ability to stand up for their rights.
Children can be infected through sexual abuse or rape. In some countries, child marriages are culturally accepted, and a young girl could get HIV from their older husband, and then pass it to their babies, too. The younger a child is when they first have sex, the higher their chances of getting HIV are.
In central and Eastern Europe, injected drug use spreads HIV among young people living on the streets. In one study in Ukraine, high-risk behaviors, including sharing needles, were common among kids as young as 10.
Transfusions of HIV-positive blood or injections with unsterilized needles could infect children in poorer countries. The U.S. and Western European countries have medical safeguards to prevent this problem.
Not all children with HIV will have symptoms, and those that do won't have exactly the same ones. Symptoms can vary by age.
Some of the more common are:
- Failure to thrive, which means not gaining weight or growing like doctors expect
- Not having the skills or doing the things doctors expect a child that age would (not reaching developmental milestones)
- Brain or nervous system problems such as seizures, trouble walking, or doing poorly in school
- Being sick often with childhood illnesses such as an ear infection, a cold, an upset stomach, or diarrhea
As with adults, when an HIV infection advances, kids start to develop infections that rarely affect healthy people but can be deadly for someone whose immune system isn't working well. These "opportunistic infections" include:
- Pneumocystis pneumonia, a fungal infection of the lungs
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
- A kind of lung scarring called lymphocytic interstitial pneumonitis (LIP)
- Oral thrush or severe diaper rash from a yeast infection
Children get pretty much the same treatment as adults: a combination of medications called ART (antiretroviral therapy). But it isn't that simple, because some HIV drugs don't come in a liquid form that babies and small children can swallow. And some drugs cause serious side effects for kids.
Without ART, one-third of HIV-positive infants worldwide won't make it to their first birthday, and half will die before they're 2. Older kids who don't have symptoms can take ART to help keep them healthy.
With ART, complications from HIV or opportunistic infections -- like loss of appetite, diarrhea, and coughs and colds -- can be treated like typical childhood illnesses.
Growing Up With HIV
Adults should talk to children about the disease in a way that fits their age to help make it less scary. Kids need to know that it's not their fault they're sick and have to take medicine every day, and that they won't be left alone. Social, financial, and emotional support for the whole family is important, especially in communities without a lot of resources.
Kids with HIV and AIDS can safely go to school. But they may face bullying and discrimination unless the other students and teachers understand how HIV spreads. Awareness and education programs help break down the stigma around HIV so that children can have friends and feel normal growing up.