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Important features distinguish human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in infants and children from the disease observed in adults. Vertical transmission of HIV and the effects of the virus on an immature and naive immune system undoubtedly influence disease expression in ways that as yet are poorly defined. Difficulties in confirming the diagnosis of HIV infection in early infancy, and rapid disease progression in infants with vertically acquired infection, limit opportunities for early therapeutic intervention. In addition, HIV has important adverse effects on the developing central nervous system and normal linear growth and weight gain.

Pregnancy and Birth

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Most MTCT, estimated to cause more than 90 percent of infections worldwide in infants and children, probably occurs late in pregnancy or during birth. Although the precise mechanisms are unknown, scientists think HIV may be transmitted when maternal blood enters the fetal circulation or by mucosal exposure to virus during labor and delivery. The role of the placenta in maternal-fetal transmission is unclear and the focus of ongoing research.

The risk of MTCT is significantly increased if the mother has advanced HIV disease, increased levels of HIV in her bloodstream, or fewer numbers of the immune system cells-CD4+ T cells-that are the main targets of HIV.

Other factors that may increase the risk are maternal drug use, severe inflammation of fetal membranes, or a prolonged period between membrane rupture and delivery. A study sponsored by NIAID and others found that HIV-infected women who gave birth more than 4 hours after the rupture of the fetal membranes were nearly twice as likely to transmit HIV to their infants, as compared to women who delivered within 4 hours of membrane rupture.


HIV also may be transmitted from a nursing mother to her infant. Studies have suggested that breastfeeding introduces an additional risk of HIV transmission of approximately 10 to 14 percent among women with chronic HIV infection. In developing countries, an estimated one-third to one-half of all HIV infections are transmitted through breastfeeding.

WHO recommends that all HIV-infected women be advised about both the risks and benefits of breastfeeding for their infants so they can make informed decisions. In countries where safe alternatives to breastfeeding are readily available and economically feasible, this alternative should be encouraged. In general, in developing countries where safe alternatives to breastfeeding are not readily available, the benefits of breastfeeding in terms of decreased illness and death due to other infectious diseases greatly outweigh the potential risk of HIV transmission.

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