Statistics from the end of 2015 indicate that there were 2.6 million children under the age of fifteen who were HIV positive, and only a third of them were getting proper treatment. That said it is true that the number of children getting affected by the virus is progressively decreasing every year. The majority of AIDS and HIV among children emerges from southern sub-Saharan Africa and is the number one cause of death for teens and preteens there. The HIV virus critically damages the affected person’s immune system, making them infinitely more vulnerable to infections and even cancers.
That said, being HIV-positive is not the same as having a death sentence cast upon you. Using a targeted blend of medications, it is very much possible for children affected by HIV to live long, happy and healthy lives.
Most children who test HIV-positive have had it passed down from the mother during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Hence, the best method of HIV prevention in children is to have the mothers tested early and stick to a treatment regimen. It is also very common for kids who belong to lower strata of society who have no caregivers or access to education or basic rights to be affected by AIDS.
Sexual abuse and rape are also causes of infection with HIV. In several backward communities, child marriage is still practiced, so the older husband can pass on the virus to his young wife, who is then affected and also prone to pass it to her children. The chances of contracting HIV are higher depending on how young the child is when they first have sexual intercourse.
Injected drug use is one of the most common causes of HIV among younger children in Eastern and Central Europe. Studies in Ukraine and neighboring areas indicate that sharing needles for injections were very common among very young kids. Blood transfusions or the use of unsterilized needles for injections infect children in the relatively poorer countries with no access to quality healthcare.
Symptoms of HIV
HIV doesn’t always have symptoms, and even when they manifest themselves, they aren’t the same for everybody and vary with age. Here are the common ones:
- Development issues like stunted growth or not gaining weight.
- Abnormal behavior for children their age, not reaching the standard development milestones
- Nervous system or brain problems, seizures, having trouble maintaining balance or walking, not doing well in school.
- Falling ill often with small things like ear infections, stomach upsets, cold, diarrhea etc.
There are a number of infections which HIV-positive children can catch which usually don’t affect healthy people. Some of these are:
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
- Lymphocytic Interstitial Pneumonitis (LIP)
- Fungal infection in the lungs like pneumocystis pneumonia.
- Diaper rashes or oral thrush due to yeast infections
Testing and detection is the first step; the Elisa test is one of the most common HIV detection tests. The therapy structure for children is identical to that of adults: antiretroviral therapy (ART) which is a combination of several medications. Unfortunately, a lot of these are not available in liquid form, consumable by babies or smaller children, and a few could have very harmful side-effects. 30% of HIV-positive infants will expire before completing one year and 50% before their second birthday if they don’t get ART. Taking ART allows the treatment of complications or standard diseases as they would be handled in normal cases.
HIV and its Effect on a Child
One of the worst and most unnoticed aspects of HIV is the mental one – those affected are alienated, hurt and shunned for absolutely no reason. For children, especially, this can be very traumatic. It is important that they have an adult by their side every step of the way to communicate with them and make the entire experience less traumatic. They must be reminded constantly that their sickness is in no way their fault and that they are not and will not be alone. The family must get emotional, social and financial support, especially if they come from backward societies or belong to the lower strata of society.
It is important to remember that HIV is not contagious. Mass education and awareness about the virus, AIDS and how it spreads among students, and the entirety of society is very important to break down the stigma and have a more normal and comfortable environment for the children affected
Walter Moore is a professional immunologist. He has dedicated his life to studying the immune system, its aspects, and related diseases and issues, and also new diagnostic methods like the Elisa test. He also maintains a blog for articles across a number of topics.
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