AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. A child infected with HIV is likely to develop AIDS eventually, but HIV and AIDS are very rare conditions in children in Australia.
Causes of HIV and AIDS
Children with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) usually get the virus from their infected mothers, either during pregnancy or birth. In the past there was a risk of contracting HIV through transfusions of contaminated blood, but all blood for transfusion is now carefully tested.
A child infected with HIV is likely to develop AIDS eventually, but the symptoms might take months, years or decades to develop, particularly if the child is taking antiretroviral drugs.
The HIV virus spreads through the exchange of human fluids, such as blood or semen. You can’t get it through direct body contact or by kissing. There’s no danger of your child getting HIV by coming into normal contact with another child or adult who has HIV, unless there’s an exchange of body fluids.
HIV can also be passed on through breastmilk. In countries like Australia, breastfeeding isn’t recommended for mothers who are infected by HIV.
Some parents might be concerned about the risks of HIV-infected children attending child care or preschool. The risk of getting the virus from an HIV-infected child – for example, through biting – is extremely low. Saliva is highly unlikely to be a source of HIV infection.
The earliest symptoms of HIV are so similar to other viral illnesses that they’re easy to miss. But most infected children are born infected, so their parents and carers can look out for symptoms like:
HIV stops the immune system from working the way it should. Without treatment a child infected by HIV will develop a range of life-threatening infections and diseases that don’t happen in healthy children who don’t have HIV.
These life-threatening conditions include pneumonia, repeated serious bacterial infections, brain infections and even some cancers. When they start to develop, the child is said to have progressed from HIV infection to AIDS.
Treatment for HIV and AIDS
At the moment, there’s no cure or vaccine for AIDS. Most children with HIV will need to take antiretroviral drugs.
Antiretroviral drugs have been very effective in treating HIV and slowing the progression to AIDS. As a result, HIV is now very much a chronic disease rather than a rapidly fatal condition. For example, an Australian child infected with HIV today will probably have a life that’s as long as any other child’s.
Also, if infected mothers take antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy and birth, and their babies take these drugs too, it can dramatically decrease the chances of HIV being passed from mother to child. For example, the chances drop from 15-45% to less than 5%, depending on the situation.
Living with HIV and AIDS
You can protect children with HIV or AIDS from infections by keeping children’s immunisations up to date and treating any infections early. Whenever a child with HIV or AIDS is unwell, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.
A family who has a child with HIV or AIDS needs medical support from a team of different experts working together in a specialised unit. If you need further information, contact your doctor.
Each state has organisations that provide information and support to people living with HIV and AIDS.