Children Affected by HIV and AIDS

Large numbers of children around the world are infected with HIV and AIDS every year. Though antiretroviral drugs exist to help slow the progression of the virus, there are millions of children who do not have access to this treatment and end up dying from the epidemic at staggering rates every year. i In addition, there are many children who are not themselves infected with HIV or AIDS but who are still indirectly affected by the epidemic because of the death, devastation and suffering that AIDS causes their families, friends, and communities.ii According to statistics, around 90% of all children living with HIV acquired the virus from their mothers during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.iii Unfortunately, many people are still unaware of the consequences that HIV and AIDS have on children because the mistaken assumption that the virus affects mainly adults because HIV is known to be transmitted through sexual intercourse or drug use is often made.

What is the number of infected children that are living with HIV and AIDS?

According to statistics, at the end of 2006, there were some 2.3 million children living with HIV around the world. In 2006, over half a million children were newly infected with HIV and of the 2.9 million people who died of AIDS during the same year, over one in ten were childrenvi. Globally, every hour forty children die because of AIDS.v

What are some of the ways in which Children become infected with HIV and AIDS?

Mother-to-child-transmission of HIV accounts for the large majority of HIV infections in children. When a woman is HIV-positive, there is a possibility that her child may become infected with the HIV virus during pregnancy, childbirth (delivery) or breastfeeding. Fortunately, today there exist a variety of drugs that can substantially reduce the risk of transmission from mother to child. The biggest challenge continues to be making these drugs widely available in lower-income developing countries where people have less access to funding, medication and treatment services. Other ways that the virus can be transmitted is through needles that have not been sterilized or blood transfusions where infected blood is used. In the majority of wealthier countries, this problem has been eliminated for the most part. However, in developing countries where there is often a lack of resources in hospitals and clinic, this method of infection is more common. Children’s risk of contracting HIV and AIDS is also increased if they decide to have sexual relations at an early age without knowing or understanding the risk that engaging in unprotected sex may pose to their health. Young children, most often girls, can become infected with HIV and AIDS if they have been sexually abused and/or raped; this increases their chances of being exposed to the virus. The rape of children, girls more specifically, is a devastating phenomenon in various parts of Africa where there exists a myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS. In this way, young girls can be exposed to the virus and are sometimes more vulnerable to exposure than little boys of the same age group because of gendered inequalities.

What are the challenges that children living with HIV and AIDS face?

  • Once a child is infected with HIV, they face a high risk of becoming ill and eventually dying of AIDS or HIV related infections unless they can receive treatment, usually most successful in the form of antiretroviral drugs. These drugs can effectively slow down the progression of the virus and help children live longer and healthier lives. Unfortunately a vast majority of the children (an estimated 90%) who could benefit from antiretroviral drugs are not receiving them. Antiretroviral drugs are often hard to access because of high drug prices and a lack of healthcare providers who are trained to treat children.
  • One of the major problems children also face is that there are few appropriate drugs available to them, since a majority of the drugs for children are only available in tablet form. This poses a huge challenge to healthcare providers since medications for children are most effectively digested in either the form of syrup or powder. Caretakers are often forced to resort to breaking up tablets for adults into smaller doses for their children, often leading to children receiving either too great or too small a dose of the drug.vi
  • Children who are themselves infected with the virus or live with parents or family members that are HIV positive often experience stigmatization and discrimination from their extended families, friends and communities. This causes alienation, isolation and depression, further decreasing their life prospects and emotional well-being.
  • During their childhood most children get sicknesses like the mumps and chickenpox. However, children that are infected with either HIV or AIDS have weaker immune systems making it harder for them to fight off these otherwise harmless sicknesses. As a result, these illnesses and other opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis and pneumonia last longer, are more frequent and do not respond as well to the regular treatments.vii
References: 
iii UNAIDS/WHO (2006, December) “AIDS Epidemic Update” retrieved from http://www.avert.org/children.htm
iv UNAIDS/WHO (2006, December) “AIDS Epidemic Update” retrieved from http://www.avert.org/children.htm
v UNAIDS/WHO (2006, December) “AIDS Epidemic Update” retrieved from http://www.avert.org/children.htm
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