I have two kids adopted as healthy newborns. But shortly after my children came home, the agency that handled my adoptions began a new program for the placement of HIV+ babies and children. When I have casually mentioned this program to friends and family I have encountered a surprising amount of confusion about HIV and children born with it. It seems that much of the good news about HIV are in fact, little known facts. After reading a nice feature in a Scottish newspaper about two women living through HIV+ pregnancies (both have negative children), I was inspired to share these facts with Strollerderby readers who might not have heard some of them.
Little Known Fact #1:
Few HIV+ women transmit the virus to their babies.
Our adoption agency identifies orphaned or relinquished babies and young children born HIV+ and matches them with adoptive families. Most of these children are born abroad. Why? Because transmission of HIV between a positive woman and her baby is almost completely preventable with the right drug regimen and has almost vanished in countries with access to those drugs.
Little Known Fact #2:
Babies born “positive” often serio-convert to negative by the time they are a year old. Even without the proper drugs, the odds of transmission between a woman and her baby are less than 50/50. In the early days of HIV, doctors tested such babies and found them positive, as they were carrying their mothers’ antibodies. But over 70% of these children “outgrew” their positive status, testing negative six or nine months (sometimes longer) after birth. Families who adopt HIV+ babies may find that their children are negative after all, with later testing.
Little Known Fact #3:
HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence. Even children who are truly HIV+ can be expected to live long, happy lives, even potentially having and raising biological (HIV-) children of their own. Don’t get me wrong: HIV is not a simple thing to deal with. It requires adherence to a drug regimen and regular doctor visits and testing to make sure that drug regimen is still the best one. Depending on the overall health of the positive child, she may suffer more than her share of childhood illnesses and they may hit her harder than the average child. But they may not. Some people living with HIV have virtually indistinguishable basic health from those who are negative.
Little Known Fact #4:
HIV doesn’t live well (or for very long) outside the human body. Once blood is dried, the risk of transmission is statistically zero. In fact, researchers have had a difficult time keeping HIV alive outside carefully controlled conditions. While wet blood spills need to be treated with care (generally, rubber glove and bleach are advised), a scab or some dried blood on a surface carry virtually no risk for transmission. And people on a good drug regimen are able to keep what’s called their “viral load” so low that even wet blood has a small infection risk. (For more details, see the CDC website.)
With these things is mind, I urge you to support efforts to get antiretroviral drugs to those in countries with high rates of HIV but little drug access. It is criminal that a single child should be born HIV+ when the drugs to prevent this are ready and available.
In the meantime, I’d humbly suggest that if you are considering adoption, to consider an HIV+ child. One thing is certain when you adopt such a child: there is no long waiting list of parents available. Many HIV+ children are what the UN calls “true orphans” with deceased parents and little social support in their home communities. You are unlikely to run into a Madonna situation when you adopt an HIV+ child. Instead, you can know that the child you bring home truly needs a new family. I have met a number of families with a mix of positive and negative children, all thriving and growing happily.
There are also ways to support AIDS orphans who will never be adopted, or whose biological relatives are still in their lives but need help providing health care and other basics for these children.
HIV does not have to be a death sentence. Children with HIV can have normal childhoods and long, healthy lives. The more people understand this good news, the better off these children will be.
image: child awaiting adoption; adoption-link.org