Tracking emotional and behavioral issues in youth born to women with HIV


July 21, 2021 – Biostatistics doctoral student Jemar Bather recently found something unexpected in his research on emotional and behavioral issues among youth born to women living with HIV. While he didn’t turn up what he was originally looking for—evidence of racial/ethnic disparities in the prevalence of these issues—he did discover differences based on youths’ own HIV status. And the results were surprising: Youth in the study group who were born without HIV had worse behavioral functioning than youth who were born with HIV.

Bather’s findings were published July 1, 2021, in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes. Other Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health authors of the study included Paige Williams, (Bather’s adviser), Carly Broadwell, Kunjal Patel, Brad Karalius, and Deborah Kacanek.

The paper drew on data from the Pediatric HIV/AIDS Cohort Study (PHACS) Adolescent Master Protocol, one of the largest U.S.-based cohort studies of youth born to women with HIV. Bather’s study included 391 youth born with HIV and 209 who were HIV-exposed but not infected at birth.

Jemar Bather
Jemar Bather

“Seeing that the youth born without HIV had more behavioral issues than those born with HIV was surprising to me,” Bather said.

To explain the counterintuitive findings, Bather and his co-authors speculated that it could have something to do with the fact that youth with HIV are monitored every three to four months for HIV care. These regular check-ins would include access to clinicians, social workers, and psychologists—services that may not be as accessible for children who are not living with HIV.

The study also found that, regardless of the youths’ HIV status, behavioral issues were more common among those who had been through a stressful life event, who experienced a change in the caregiver they lived with, who had a caregiver who screened positive for a psychiatric condition, or who lived with caregiver who is married.

For Bather, the study’s findings showed the need for early monitoring of behavioral functioning in youth born to women with HIV—including those who do not have the virus—and the importance of ensuring that they have access to interventions if necessary. “Rather than being reactive to the problems faced by these youth, it’s important to take more preventive measures,” he said.

Karen Feldscher

Feature photo: Tobias Brockow/Pixabay

Photo of Jemar Bather: Shaina Andelman