Since the introduction of combination antiretroviral therapy, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is a manageable chronic disease. However, school-age children (4–18 years) living with HIV could still experience problems with functioning at school, due to the impact of the virus itself, medication, comorbidities and social stigma. School functioning covers academic achievement, school attendance, and social relationships and is of utmost importance to optimize normal participation.
To gain insight in school functioning problems of perinatally HIV-infected children, we performed a systematic review of the literature in multiple databases from January 1997 up to February 2019. Studies were included if they described outcomes of school functioning of school-age children perinatally infected with HIV, in high-income countries. Meta-analyses were performed for sufficiently comparable studies.
Results and discussion
Results from 32 studies show that HIV-infected children experience more problems in various areas of school functioning in comparison with national norms, matched healthy controls, siblings and HIV-exposed uninfected (HEU) children. The most pronounced differences concerned the usage of special educational services, general learning problems, and mathematics and reading performance scores. Comparisons with both national norms and siblings/HEU children show that the differences between HIV-infected children and siblings/HEU children were less pronounced. Moreover, siblings/HEU children also reported significantly worse outcomes compared to national norms. This suggests that problems in school functioning cannot be solely attributed to the HIV-infection, but that multiple socio-economic and cultural factors may play a role herein.
Perinatally HIV-infected children seem vulnerable to problems in various areas of school functioning. Therefore, monitoring of school functioning should be an important aspect in the care for these children. A family-focused approach with special attention to a child’s socio-environmental context and additional attention for siblings and HEU children, is therefore recommended.