About HIV and AIDS
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that damages the immune system and stops it from working the way it should.
If a person with HIV isn’t treated, the person will get life-threatening infections and diseases that don’t usually happen in healthy people. When this happens, the disease is called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
HIV and AIDS are rare in Australian children.
HIV spreads through the exchange of blood, semen, vaginal fluid, rectal fluid or breastmilk. This kind of exchange can happen during pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, unprotected sex and needle-sharing.
Children with HIV usually get the virus from their infected mothers, during pregnancy or birth.
You can’t get HIV from the environment, through skin-to-skin contact or by kissing. The risk of getting the virus through biting is extremely low. There’s no danger of your child getting HIV by coming into everyday contact with another child or adult living with HIV – for example, in the community or at school or child care.
All Australian blood products are carefully tested, so there’s no risk of getting HIV from blood transfusions.
The earliest symptoms of HIV are so similar to other viral illnesses that they’re easy to miss. Infected children might show signs of a weakened immune system like:
- failure to gain weight, or weight loss
- persistent rash
- swollen lymph glands
- chronic diarrhoea
- chronic thrush
- prolonged fever.
If a child living with HIV develops AIDS, they might get life-threatening infections and diseases like pneumonia, repeated serious bacterial infections and even some cancers.
Tests for HIV
HIV is diagnosed with a blood test. The blood test won’t always pick up HIV if a person has the test too soon after being exposed to HIV. This means they might need to have the test again later.
At the moment, there’s no cure or vaccine for HIV.
Children and teenagers living with HIV need to take antiretroviral drugs. Antiretroviral drugs are very effective in treating HIV and stopping the disease from developing into AIDS.
Children with HIV need to:
- take their medicine every day
- keep their immunisations up to date and get extra immunisations
- see their doctor regularly.
Living with HIV
With treatment, children and teenagers diagnosed with HIV in Australia today are likely to lead long and healthy lives.
HIV is now a chronic disease like diabetes or asthma, rather than a rapidly fatal condition. But like all children, children living with HIV sometimes get sick.
Whenever a child with HIV is unwell, you should contact your GP as soon as possible. It’s best for illnesses to be treated as early as possible.
Each state has organisations that provide information and support to people living with HIV and AIDS.
Preventing HIV during pregnancy
If you’re living with HIV and planning for pregnancy, it’s best to discuss your diagnosis with a doctor. The doctor can help you develop a plan to reduce the risk of HIV being passed from birthing mother to child.
If you’re pregnant and living with HIV, you can dramatically reduce the risk of your baby getting HIV by taking antiretroviral medicines during pregnancy and birth. It’s also important for your baby to take antiretroviral medicines for a short period too.
In Australia formula feeding is recommended if you’re a birthing mother living with HIV. This reduces the risk of HIV being transferred to your baby through breastmilk.
Preventing HIV in the teenage years
If your teenage child is sexually active, they can reduce their risk of getting HIV by using condoms during vaginal or anal sex. You can help to reduce your child’s risk by making sure your child has:
- accurate information about safe sexual practices
- access to condoms
- access to reliable advice about sexuality and sexual health from a GP or other health professional, if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you.
If your child wants to get a tattoo or body-piercing, they can reduce their risk of getting HIV by not sharing needles used for body-piercings and tattoos. You can help to reduce your child’s risk by finding them a safe and professional tattooist or piercer.
And if you’re concerned that your child is using intravenous drugs, you could start by talking to your GP, your child’s school counsellor or other school staff for resources and support options. Your child can reduce their risk by not sharing syringes.