HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that prevents the immune system from working properly, making it less effective at fighting infections. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the term used when loss of or damage to immune function caused by HIV has been diagnosed.

HIV and AIDS are not in themselves illnesses with their own set of symptoms, but rather they facilitate the development of infections and tumours because of the lack of immunity. The rate at which HIV or AIDS develops and the ways in which it affects the child will differ from case to case. It is therefore not possible to predict how either condition will develop for any particular child.

Although it is likely that a child with HIV will eventually develop AIDS, it is becoming increasingly likely that a child born HIV positive or who becomes HIV positive in infancy may live well into at least the teenage years.

It is important to understand that HIV cannot be transmitted by coughing, sneezing, touching or hugging. Children are far more at risk from catching a range of infectious diseases from each other than of developing HIV from having casual contact with a child who has been diagnosed as being HIV positive. Most schools try to minimise the risk of spreading infectious diseases by using agreed precautions and attending to proper hygiene for all children.

Children who have been born with HIV/AIDS should be able to attend mainstream school without fear of discrimination. However, many children may have already lost one or both of their parents to the virus and their relatives or carers may prefer to keep the diagnosis to themselves, so schools are often not informed of the situation.

Key characteristics

Children who are born with HIV/AIDS may have no symptoms at first. These usually appear within two to three years. They will have enlarged lymph nodes (glands of the immune system). They may also:

  • have frequent and severe bacterial infections
  • be particularly susceptible to all childhood illnesses and infections
  • experience loss of weight
  • have a slow rate of growth
  • develop rashes and other skin conditions
  • lack energy and appear pale and lethargic.

Support strategies

If you know that a child has HIV/AIDS you may need to

  • ensure that the child lives as normal a school life as possible
  • liaise closely with the parents or carers about the child’s knowledge and understanding of the disease and the possible outcomes
  • provide training in appropriate procedures and related advice for all staff
  • inform parents or carers immediately when there is an infectious disease in the school
  • suggest activities the parents may do with the child when they are unable to attend school
  • provide an adult mentor if the parents or carers feel that their child needs someone to talk to about their situation and the difficulties it can cause for them
  • agree a plan with the headteacher and the class teacher as to how the school would deal with a case of unfavourable publicity and/or other parents’ concerns.

Support agencies

National AIDS Trust