Over the last decade there have been dramatic changes in the management of pediatric HIV infection. Whilst observational studies and several randomized control trials (RCTs) have addressed some questions about when to start antiretroviral therapy (ART) in children and what antiretrovirals to start, many others remain unanswered.
In infants, early initiation of ART greatly reduces mortality and disease progression. Treatment guidelines now recommend ART in all infants younger than 1 or 2 years of age depending on geographical setting.
In children >1 year of age, US, European (Paediatric European Network for Treatment of AIDS; PENTA) and WHO guidelines differ and debate is ongoing. Recent data from an RCT in Thailand in children with moderate immune suppression indicate that it is safe to monitor asymptomatic children closely without initiating ART, although earlier treatment was associated with improved growth.
Untreated HIV progression in children aged over 5 years is similar to that in adults, and traditionally adult treatment thresholds are applied. Recent adult observational and modeling studies showed a survival advantage and reduction of age-associated complications with early treatment. The current US guidelines have lowered CD4+ cell count thresholds for ART initiation for children aged >5 years to 500 cells/mm3.
Co-infections influence the choice of drugs and the timing of starting ART. Drug interactions, overlapping toxicities and adherence problems secondary to increased pill burden are important issues. Rapid changes in the pharmacokinetics of antiretrovirals in the first years of life, limited pharmacokinetic data in children and genetic variation in metabolism of many antiretrovirals make correct dosing difficult. Adherence should always be addressed prior to starting ART or switching regimens.
The initial ART regimen depends on previous exposure, including perinatal administration for prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT), adherence, co-infections, drug availability and licensing. A European cohort study in infants indicated that treatment with four drugs produced superior virologic suppression and immune recovery. Protease inhibitor (PI)-based ART has the advantage of a high barrier to viral resistance. A recent RCT conducted in several African countries showed PI-based ART to be advantageous in children aged <3 years compared with nevirapine-based ART irrespective of previous nevirapine exposure. Another trial in older children from resource rich settings showed both regimens were equally effective.
Treatment interruption remains a controversial issue in children, but one study in Europe demonstrated no short-term detrimental effects.
ART in children is a rapidly evolving area with many new antiretrovirals being developed and undergoing trials. The aim of ART has shifted from avoiding mortality and morbidity to achieving a normal life expectancy and quality of life, minimizing toxicities and preventing early cancers and age-related illnesses.