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Women and the Risk of HIV

Most women don't even know they have HIV until they get an opportunistic infection
Most women don't even know they have HIV until they get an opportunistic infection

In 1990, when Rebecca Denison learned she had tested positive for HIV, she looked for services for women and didn't find much. Although she lived in the San Francisco area, where AIDS awareness was extremely high, most of the resources she found were targeted to the gay male community, and featured little information about HIV's effect on women.

So she started researching, publicized her findings in a newsletter, and then founded Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Diseases (WORLD) to provide practical and factual information to women living with HIV, ranging from treatment options to childbirth and child care issues.

Today the message that women are vulnerable to AIDS is still not widespread in the U.S., where many women believe they are not in a risk category. Yet the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes the illnesses and infections that make up acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is currently the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 25-44 and the sixth-leading cause of death for all American women in this age group. Denison learned about her infection through a test, but many women are not even aware they have HIV until they become ill.

Most women don't even know they have HIV until they get an opportunistic infection, and then they've got full blown AIDS, explained Francess Page, Senior Public Health Advisor at the government's Office of Women's Health. I know so many women who are now dead who didn't have a clue. They thought they weren't in a risk category. Unprotected sex is a major risk for women. But it's also the way that you have babies. Women need to ask a lot more questions of their partners.

Unprotected Sex

Condoms are extremely effective in protecting against the transmission of HIV, and yet the virus is still spreading through unprotected sex. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) most American women with HIV were infected by having unprotected sex with an infected injection drug user, while about one-quarter contracted the virus by sharing needles with an infected injection drug user.

The percentage of AIDS cases among American females has more than tripled in 13 years, from 7 percent in 1985 to 23 percent in 1998. African-American and Hispanic women have been hit hardest, accounting for over three-fourths of the AIDS cases in the U.S. although they account for less than one-fourth of all U.S. women.

Safe sex messages are not really directed at men who have sex with women. Denison said. Many messages put the responsibility on the woman, and let men off the hook. But men need to hear the message that if they care about themselves, and care about others, then they need to use a condom.

She noted that the gay community has done a good job of promoting the use of condoms, with older men teaching younger men about safe sex. That's missing in heterosexual relationships, where heterosexual men feel they're not in a risk category, she said. The risk is also there for monogamous women. People enter into monogamous relationships based on love and trust. But there are too many cases where, as one woman I know says, they may be married, but their husbands are not, Denison observed.