By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

As of the end of 2003, an estimated 40 million people worldwide - 37 million adults and 2.5 million children younger than 15 years - were living with HIV/AIDS. The young were once considered relatively safe from HIV/AIDS. Today, more than half of all new infections strike people under the age of 25. Girls are hit harder and younger than boys. Infant and child death rates have risen sharply, and 14 million children are now orphans because of the disease.

Children may acquire HIV during pregnancy, labor, delivery or, after birth, through breastfeeding. Among infected infants who are not breastfed, about two-thirds of cases of mother-to-child transmission occur around the time of delivery and the rest during pregnancy. AIDS is a chronic and most often fatal disease. Despite growing understanding and awareness, HIV infection is a serious threat to both heterosexual and homosexual teens. When adolescents take certain risks, they are more likely to become infected with HIV and develop AIDS.

Children with HIV infection suffer from the same common childhood illnesses as those who are not infected. The illnesses are, however, more frequent, last longer and may respond poorly to usual treatments. In advanced HIV infection, opportunistic infections can occur. Prevention of common childhood infections through appropriate immunization, effective management of common childhood illnesses and malnutrition, and prevention and early treatment of opportunistic infections can improve the quality of life of HIV-infected children. Furthermore, HIV counseling and support of children, their parents and siblings can considerably improve quality of life, relieve suffering and assist in the practical management of illness.

As upsetting and confusing as it can be to bring up the subject of AIDS with young children, it's essential to do so. By the time they reach third grade, research shows that as many as 93 percent of children have already heard about the illness. Yet, while kids are hearing about HIV/AIDS early on, what they are learning is often inaccurate and frightening. You can set the record straight -- if you know the facts yourself. Talk with your children about safe sex. Parents should educate their children and also work closely with schools, churches, youth organizations, and health care professionals to ensure that children and teens receive sex education and preventive drug abuse courses which include material on HIV.

Following are some suggestions for concerned parents:

  • Children's misconceptions about AIDS can be pretty scary, so it's important to correct them as soon as possible.
  • Praising children frequently, setting realistic goals and keeping up with their interests are an effective way to build self-esteem, because when kids feel good about themselves, they are much more likely to withstand peer pressure to have sex before they are ready, or to not do drugs.
  • The HIV virus dies quickly when it is outside the human body. Explain to your child that AIDS cannot be contracted by touching anyone who has AIDS or by using the affected person's glass or towel.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,