Common Birth Defects

Congenital HIV Infection

What is congenital HIV infection?

Congenital infections are one of the three major categories of birth defects. The best known in this category is rubella (German measles). However thanks to widespread vaccination programs, rubella is rare in this country. Viral infections and sexually transmitted infections such as HIV are still present in the United States and can endanger a developing fetus. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. About one baby in 2,700 born in the United States has congenital HIV infection.

How is the child affected by congenital HIV infection?

HIV-infected babies may appear normal at birth, but as many as 20 percent will develop AIDS in the first year of life. Many more will show symptoms by age 6. A person with AIDS can't fight disease normally and is highly susceptible to infections and certain cancers. A child with AIDS is especially at risk for serious illnesses from common bacteria because the virus weakens the immune system. These problems can be life threatening or fatal. Many children who develop AIDS in the first year of life die before age 4.

What treatments are available for congenital HIV infection?

In recent years, much has been learned about the treatment and prevention of HIV infection, particularly for pregnant women. A recent study showed that drug treatment during pregnancy can greatly reduce the risk that an HIV-infected mother will pass the virus on to her child. In addition to drug therapy, other steps can be taken. A woman with HIV may reduce the risk of infecting her baby by opting for a cesarean birth, before natural labor begins and her membranes have ruptured. Also, if a woman and her doctor are aware of her HIV status during pregnancy, certain precautions can be taken during prenatal care to reduce the risk of the infection being transmitted to the baby. The doctor may avoid certain procedures that would increase exposure of the fetus to the mother's blood, such as amniocentesis. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that a baby born to an HIV-infected mother be treated with certain drugs in the early weeks of life as a precaution against life-threatening, opportunistic infections.