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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 transmission

HIV spreads through the exchange of human fluids like blood, semen or breastmilk. This kind of exchange can happen during pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, unprotected sex and needle-sharing.

You can't get HIV from the environment, through skin-to-skin 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.

Children with HIV usually get the virus from their infected mothers, during pregnancy or birth.

In the past there was a risk of getting HIV through transfusion of contaminated blood, but all Australian blood products are now carefully tested.

Some parents might be concerned about the risks of children with HIV attending child care or preschool. The risk of getting the virus from a child with HIV - for example, through biting - is extremely low. Saliva is highly unlikely to be a source of HIV infection.

HIV symptoms

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's HIV develops into AIDS, she 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 the test might need to be repeated later.

HIV treatment

Children and teenagers 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 medication every day
  • keep their immunisations up to date
  • see their doctor regularly.

At the moment, there's no cure or vaccine for HIV. But with treatment, children and teenagers diagnosed with HIV in Australia today are likely to lead long and healthy lives.

Living with HIV

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 doctor 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

HIV and pregnancy
Women or couples with HIV planning for pregnancy should discuss their diagnosis with their doctor and develop a plan to reduce the risk of HIV being passed from mother to child.

If a woman with HIV takes antiretroviral medications during pregnancy and birth, and her baby takes antiretroviral medications for a short period, it dramatically reduces the risk of the baby getting HIV.

Breastfeeding isn't recommended for mothers who have HIV.

HIV and teenagers
Teenagers can reduce their risk of getting HIV by using condoms during vaginal or anal sex. They should also avoid sharing items like drug syringes and needles used for body-piercings and tattoos.

If your teenage child is sexually active, you can help 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 he doesn't feel comfortable talking to you.

If your child wants to get a tattoo or body-piercing, you can help her find 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.