Poverty, AIDS and child health: Identifying highest-risk children in South Africa

Lucie Cluver, Mark Boyes, Mark Orkin, Lorraine Sherr


Background. Identifying children at the highest risk of negative health effects is a prerequisite to effective public health policies in Southern Africa. A central ongoing debate is whether poverty, orphanhood or parental AIDS most reliably indicates child health risks. Attempts to address this key question have been constrained by a lack of data allowing distinction of AIDS-specific parental death or morbidity from other causes of orphanhood and chronic illness.

Objectives. To examine whether household poverty, orphanhood and parental illness (by AIDS or other causes) independently or interactively predict child health, developmental and HIV-infection risks.

Methods. We interviewed 6 002 children aged 10 - 17 years in 2009 - 2011, using stratified random sampling in six urban and rural sites across three South African provinces. Outcomes were child mental health risks, educational risks and HIV-infection risks. Regression models that controlled for socio-demographic co-factors tested potential impacts and interactions of poverty, AIDS-specific and other orphanhood and parental illness status.

Results. Household poverty independently predicted child mental health and educational risks, AIDS orphanhood independently predicted mental health risks and parental AIDS illness independently predicted mental health, educational and HIV-infection risks. Interaction effects of poverty with AIDS orphanhood and parental AIDS illness were found across all outcomes. No effects, or interactions with poverty, were shown by AIDS-unrelated orphanhood or parental illness.

Conclusions. The identification of children at highest risk requires recognition and measurement of both poverty and parental AIDS. This study shows negative impacts of poverty and AIDS-specific vulnerabilities distinct from orphanhood and adult illness more generally. Additionally, effects of interaction between family AIDS and poverty suggest that, where these co-exist, children are at highest risk of all. 

Authors' affiliations

Lucie Cluver, Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, UK; Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa; Health Economics and AIDS Research Division, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

Mark Boyes, Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, UK

Mark Orkin, School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Lorraine Sherr, Royal Free and University College Medical School, University College London, UK

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HIV/AIDS; poverty; child health; paediatrics

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2013;103(12):910-915. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.7045

Article History

Date submitted: 2013-05-14
Date published: 2013-10-11

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