Human immunodeficiency virus infection in childhood

Ann Trop Paediatr. 1988 Mar;8(1):1-17. doi: 10.1080/02724936.1988.11748530.


Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is associated with considerable morbidity in infants and children. It is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which can be transmitted vertically from mother to infant early in pregnancy. Transmission might also occur via breast milk. Although the exact transmission rate of HIV from mother to infant is not known, HIV can become a major threat to child survival. This threat is already present in Africa where high seroprevalences have been reported among infants and young children. Transmission via blood products is decreasing due to reliable methods of screening donors for HIV antibody. Where these tests are not available, parenteral transmission will increase the incidence of HIV infection. The clinical picture of HIV infection in children presents with failure to thrive, pulmonary interstitial pneumonitis, hepatosplenomegaly and recurrent bacterial infections. These are common manifestations of diseases prevalent in children in Africa where malnutrition and recurrent parasitic infections already cause immunosuppression. Recognition of the syndrome is therefore difficult. There is no available cure for HIV infection. Supportive treatment and relief of pain and suffering are the only means of management at present. Prevention of spread of the illness to infants and young children is therefore of paramount importance.

PIP: This review describes the transmission, clinical picture and immunological abnormalities of HIV infection in children in general, and the special problems of AIDS in African children. The review begins with a thorough introduction to the epidemiology of AIDS. Transmission to children generally involves vertical transmission by placental transfer or transmission of HIV via transfusion of blood and blood products, or by contaminated needles. Casual transfer is unknown, and only a few cases of transmission via breast milk are known. The clinical picture of HIV infection in infants and children differs from that in adults in 3 important aspects: earlier onset, different clinical presentation and existence of AIDS embryopathy. The average onset was 5 months of age. The most common symptoms in young children are chronic interstitial pneumonitis without demonstrable etiology, hepatomegaly, failure to thrive, adenopathy, diarrhea, oral or perineal thrush, eczema and thrombocytopenia. The common opportunistic infections are pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, Cryptosporidium diarrhea, pyogenic infections of the middle ear and gram-negative septicemia. Several infections seen in adult AIDS cases are rare in children: mycobacterium avium-intracellulare, toxoplasma gondii, hepatitis B, as well as Kaposi's sarcoma, malignant lymphoma and cardiac abnormalities. The AIDS embryopathy or HIV dysmorphic syndrome is characterized by immunological abnormalities, growth failure, and craniofacial dysmorphism, particularly microcephaly, prominent box-like forehead, hypertelorism, flattened nasal bridge, obliquity of the eyes, blue sclerae and patulous lips. AIDS in African children is extremely difficult to diagnose because of similarities between the presenting symptoms and those commonly seen in sick children there, many of whom are also immune compromised. Where serotesting is available, the picture is complicated by cross reaction between the test agents and some factor found in sera from malaria patients. Seropositivity in some areas is high, increased by the prevalence of transfusion and injection treatments. Diagnosis is made more difficult by lack of laboratory facilities and difficulties in follow-up for pediatric patients. The CDC definitions of AIDS and ARC, and the WHO/CDC definitions of AIDS are appended.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / blood
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / transmission*
  • Age Factors
  • Antibodies, Viral / analysis
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Female
  • HIV / isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange*
  • Milk, Human / microbiology
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Opportunistic Infections / etiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Zambia


  • Antibodies, Viral