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HIV and AIDS in children

An estimated 3.2 million children around the world were living with HIV/AIDs at the end of 2013, according to the World Health Organisation.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS ( acquired immune deficiency syndrome). The virus damages or destroys the cells of the immune system, leaving them unable to fight infections and certain cancers.

Causes of HIV in children

Most HIV infections in children are passed from mother to child during pregnancy, labour and delivery, or breast-feeding. 

The number of mums passing HIV to their babies has fallen to a new record low in the UK.

Research by University College London in 2016 found that only 7 babies whose mums had the virus were born with HIV between 2012 and 2014.

It is due to a high take-up of antenatal HIV screening and treatment. This can reduce virus levels in the mother during pregnancy.

Other causes of child HIV include:

Blood transfusions. Blood transfusions using infected blood or injections with unsterilised needles can lead to HIV infection and AIDS in children. In wealthier countries such as the UK this problem has been virtually eliminated, but in poorer countries this still occurs.

Illicit drug use. In central and Eastern Europe injected drug use continues to spread HIV among young people living on the streets. In one study in the Ukraine, high-risk behaviours including sharing needles were prevalent among children as young as 10.

Sexual transmission. Although sexual transmission is not a main cause of HIV/AIDS among children, it does occur in countries where children become sexually active at an early age. Children may also become infected through sexual abuse or rape.

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS in children

Many babies and children living with HIV are known or suspected to have the infection because their mothers are known to be infected. However, sometimes infection is not suspected until a child develops symptoms. Symptoms of HIV infection vary by age and individual child, but the following are some of the more common symptoms:

  • Failure to thrive, which is the failure to gain weight or grow according to standardised growth charts used by health visitors and doctors.
  • Failure to reach developmental milestones during the expected time frame.
  • Brain or nervous system problems, characterised by seizures, difficulty with walking or poor performance in school.
  • Frequent childhood illnesses such as ear infections, colds, upset stomach and diarrhoea.

As HIV infection becomes more advanced, children start to develop opportunistic infections. These are infections that rarely affect healthy people but can be deadly for people whose immune systems aren't working properly. Common opportunistic infections related to HIV include:

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