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Care and Treatment for Children Living With HIV

December 3, 2015

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Care and Treatment for HIV-Positive Children

Table of Contents

The Good News

Every parent wants his or her child to be healthy and safe. When your child is living with HIV (HIV+), there are some extra steps to take to make sure that he or she gets the right care. The good news is that children living with HIV, just like adults living with HIV, are living longer, healthier lives with improved treatments.


HIV in Children

HIV is somewhat different in children than in adults. Children living with HIV normally have much higher CD4 cell counts than adults living with HIV, but may also have higher viral loads (the amount of HIV in the blood).

In adults, HIV weakens a fully mature immune system. In children, HIV attacks a developing immune system. As a result, children living with HIV -- even those on HIV drugs -- are more likely than both HIV-negative children and adults living with HIV to get bacterial infections, including ear infections and pneumonia.

In addition, children living with HIV who are not taking HIV drugs are more likely to become sick with shingles (herpes zoster), Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC), and a lung problem called lymphoid interstitial pneumonitis (LIP). LIP symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. Thrush (white patches in the mouth due to yeast) is common in children living with HIV who are not on HIV drugs and can make it difficult to eat. Since infections can start in the mouth, it is important that children living with HIV see a dentist regularly.

Children living with HIV who are not taking HIV drugs may be small for their age and may not grow at the same rate as HIV-negative children. A child living with HIV may be undersized or underweight because of loss of appetite related to HIV or because of some of the drug treatments. Children living with HIV may have diarrhea, which can also make it difficult to gain weight. It is important that children living with HIV have proper nutrition. But getting kids to eat right can be hard, even when children are not living with HIV! If you have questions or need help, it is important to ask your child's health care provider or an AIDS service organization for a referral to a dietician who knows about the nutritional needs of children living with HIV.

Lastly, children living with HIV who are not taking HIV drugs may also have more learning and thinking problems. Some of these thinking and behavioral difficulties, as well as many of the illnesses listed above, can be prevented by taking HIV drugs. Children living with HIV who take HIV drugs can now grow into healthy adults, get jobs, have HIV-negative children -- and make many of their dreams come true.

Preventing Illnesses

The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has made recommendations to prevent children living with HIV from getting opportunistic infections (OIs), or diseases that attack the body when the immune system is weak. All infants living with HIV up to the age of one year are given medicine to prevent pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP, also called Pneumocystis jirovecii), a type of pneumonia that is more likely to affect people with weakened immune systems. After the first year, some children should still receive preventive medicine depending on the health of their immune systems.

If a child living with HIV tests positive for exposure to tuberculosis (TB), it is important that the child take medicine to keep TB from developing. Depending on the child's age and immune system, medication may also be given to prevent mycobacterium avium complex (MAC), which is caused by a germ that can affect the lungs or the gut. In some cases, as the child's immune system becomes stronger, her or his health care provider may suggest that these kinds of preventive medicines can be stopped.

Vaccinating your child is one of the most important things you can do to keep him or her from getting sick. Children living with HIV are immunized for most diseases in the same way as HIV-negative children.

Check with your child's health care provider about any special requirements for vaccines for children living with HIV. For example, it is important that children living with HIV get the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the chicken pox (varicella) vaccine if their CD4 cells are high enough. However, they should not receive these vaccines if their CD4 counts are very low.

No parent can protect a child from every germ. While you may want to keep your child living with HIV away from people who have colds and the flu, it is important to understand that your child will eventually be around someone who is sick. Try to teach your child to practice frequent and thorough hand washing. Because children often rub their eyes or put their fingers in their mouths or noses, keeping hands reasonably free from germs and using tissues to wipe your child's eyes or nose can help keep your child healthy.

HIV Care and Treatment for Children

Finding a pediatrician (children's doctor) with whom you feel comfortable and who has experience treating children living with HIV can be very important for your child's health. It is helpful to have a local pediatrician who is close by and can help with all of the regular childhood issues, and to consult a health care provider who is an HIV expert (especially if your local pediatricians do not have a lot of experience treating children living with HIV). Expert HIV pediatricians will often work at a children's hospital or medical center with an HIV program.

HIV drug treatment works very well for most children and starting it early will keep HIV from causing more damage to your child's body. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all children living with HIV below five years of age receive HIV drugs, regardless of their CD4 count. The WHO also suggests that all children five years of age or older who have CD4 counts less than 500 receive HIV treatment. The WHO treatment guidelines can be found here. The DHHS has also put together a set of pediatric treatment guidelines that recommend when children should start medications and which ones they should take.

Your child's HIV specialist is the person to talk to about when to start HIV drugs, which ones to start, and what the possible drug interactions and side effects might be. There is not as much information available about the use of HIV drugs in children as in adults, and not all HIV drugs are available for children. Still, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved over thirty HIV drugs for children. Their list of approved HIV drugs for children can be found here. Finding the right dose is important. Children's doses are based on their weight, so dosing will have to be adjusted as your child grows.

Once treatment is started, it is important that your child be checked regularly to make sure that the HIV drugs are working well and not causing any serious side effects. Work with your pediatrician to keep a close eye on your child's growth, development, and lab tests (such as viral load and CD4 counts). If you see problems, you may need to talk with your child's HIV provider about changing to different HIV drugs. It is also important to ask your child if he or she is experiencing any pain. Staying aware of how your child is feeling will help you to know if he or she has become ill or is experiencing side effects.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.

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