Children born with HIV

Children born with HIV accessing treatment, have no significant difference in their movement skills, social interaction, language skills or practical reasoning at age five compared to HIV-negative children, according to new research. However, some visual impairments were detected in the groups.

The study followed around 200 newborns aged 12-weeks-and-under from Cape Town, South Africa, between 2006 and 2013. Of the infants included in the study, 119 were HIV-positive, while 84 were HIV negative.

When the study began, the HIV positive infant group had a CD4 percentage within the normal range and were not displaying any symptoms of HIV. Of the HIV negative control group, half had been exposed to HIV through childbirth or breastfeeding but had not contracted the virus.

The study aimed to gain a better insight into how treatment can protect children from neurological disorders associated with early HIV infection. Previous research has shown that HIV can enter the central nervous system early in the course of infection and cause several neurological disorders if not treated early enough, including HIV encephalopathy, which affects cognitive, motor, and behavioural functions. This can have lasting impact in infants and children who are in the process of acquiring these skills as they develop.

Over a five-year period, researchers analysed participants’ movement skills, personal and social interaction, hearing and language skills, eye-and-hand coordination and visual perception. When infants reached 24-months, their practical reasoning skills were also assessed.

At the end of the study researchers found the 5-year-olds living with HIV were at a similar development level as their HIV-negative peers in all skill-categories except visual perception, where HIV-positive children scored significantly lower. This was irrespective of the treatment group the children belonged to.

Researchers found treatment interruption appeared safe in children who had been virally suppressed early, compared to the group that had started treatment later. This is particularly reassuring for contexts where a lack of supplies means ART interruption may be unavoidable—suggesting that treatment offered early on can offer protection during later interruptions.

These findings are hopefully a relief to a number of parents and children born with HIV.—Additional information from Avert and International AIDS Society Journal

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