Children with HIV
Since AIDS first hit the headline back in the 1980s more than five million children have been infected with the HIV virus.
Mirroring the picture among adults, around 90% of these cases are in Africa although figures are rising elsewhere around the world particularly in Asia and India.
The majority of these children (around 92%) contract the virus from their mothers, either through pregnancy, birth or through breastfeeding. Children can also be infected through contaminated blood, sexual abuse or the use of contaminated syringes.
In Europe around 50% of children with HIV live in Romania. Who can forget television images back in the 1990s of haunted children abandoned in orphanages because of their HIV status? Many of these children were infected through contaminated blood used during transfusions.
In Asian countries, very young children are being infected through sexual exploitation. Nobody likes to talk about it because nobody wants to think or admit it goes on. But the awful truth is that children as young as 18 months are being used as sex toys. They get infected at a very young age thanks to a thriving trade in peadophilia.
America and parts of Europe are also seeing a small rise in the number of younger children being diagnosed, although the vast majority of cases are due to mother to child transmission.
HIV is a very difficult infection to diagnose in young children as the early symptoms can mimic a variety of childhood illnesses. Also in developing countries, where illnesses such as TB may be rife, it can be easy to overlook HIV as a possible cause.
Most children with HIV are slow to develop normally both physically and mentally and they are susceptible to the same opportunistic infections as adults with the virus. The main cause of death is pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Chronic diarrhea and fungal infections are also common.
There’s a very accurate test which can identify HIV in children under six months old. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can pinpoint tiny amounts of the virus in a baby’s blood. Around 95% of young children can be accurately diagnosed using this simple biochemical technique. And obviously the younger they’re diagnosed the younger they can start treatment.
Unfortunately in developing countries access to anti HIV drugs is limited and the virus can rip through a child’s immune system causing AIDS and usually death in around 50% of cases by the age of two. Many of these deaths could be prevented by early diagnosis and timely treatment.
Immunisation programs for measles, mumps and hepatitis can give children more than a fighting chance against the virus as can a healthy diet and vitamins. But that’s easier said than done in places such as sub-Saharan Africa where access to such luxuries is limited.
Certain organisations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation are active in setting up programs designed to cut the number of AIDS deaths among children in the Third World.
However the cost of antiretroviral drugs is still an issue for many developing countries and access is limited. Countries such as America and United Kingdom have pledged more money to redress the balance.
In developed countries, thanks to the availability of anti HIV drugs, around 85% of infected children are still alive by the age of six.