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HIV and AIDS in Children

An estimated 2.5 million children around the world are living with HIV/AIDs, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (JNAIDS) "2010 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic."

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, labor and delivery, or breastfeeding. However, thanks to preventive treatment regimens, the incidence of mother-to-child HIV transmission is decreasing. In 2009, an estimated 370,000 children contracted HIV during the perinatal and breastfeeding period, down from 500,000 in 2001, according to the JNAIDS report.

Other causes of child HIV include:

Blood transfusions. Blood transfusions using infected blood or injections with unsterilized needles can lead to HIV infection and AIDS in children. In the U.S. and other wealthier countries this problem has been virtually eliminated, but in poor 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 behaviors, 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 following are some of the more common symptoms: 

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

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:

  • Pneumocystis pneumonia -- a fungal infection of the lungs
  • Serious infection due to cytomegalovirus (CMV)
  • A condition of lung scarring called lymphocytic interstitial pneumonitis (LIP)
  • Oral thrush or severe diaper rash due to Candida, a yeast infection


Treatments for Child HIV and AIDS

Due to improved prevention and treatment, AIDS-related deaths among children around the world are declining.

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