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Women and the Risk of HIV

Risk Factors & Treatment

HIV Risk Factors

According to CDC, the most common ways HIV is transmitted are through:

  • Sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an HIV-infected person
  • Sharing needles or injection equipment with an HIV-infected injection drug user.
  • To babies from HIV-infected women before or during birth, or through breast-feeding.

Worldwide, vaginal intercourse is the most common way HIV is transmitted. Scientists have explored whether women are more likely to get HIV than a man when directly exposed, but studies show that the risk for direct exposure is the same for males and females. Nevertheless, because women are generally more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases than men, they are also more vulnerable to HIV. Anybody who is having unprotected sex should go get tested, Page recommended.

Access to Care and Treatment for HIV

Failure to get tested and failure to receive proper treatment after infection with HIV appear to be the primary reasons women with HIV develop AIDS and die more quickly after diagnosis than men do, says Phyllis Greenberger, Executive Director of the Society for the Advancement of Women's Health Research. She says this encourages the scientific community to look for gender differences in disease.

The presentation of viral load in women is lower, but the immune system for that level of viral load is more damaged, explained Margaret Fischl, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the AIDS Critical Research Program at the University of Miami School of Medicine. The reasons for this is unclear —it's unknown whether it's hormonal or not.

Because women are more likely to get full blown AIDS at a lower viral load than men, many haven';t been treated properly, Greenberger said. Women were not treated as early as they should have been because their diagnosis was made on the level of viral load and the symptoms that males had, and women had different symptoms that were not understood as the precursors of AIDS.

Gynecological problems, ranging from stubborn yeast infections to invasive cervical cancer, are among the signs of AIDS in women that were originally not recognized because they did not appear in men. They have since been added to the list of AIDS indicators.

Often women do not seek care until they have more advanced disease for reasons ranging from improper diagnosis to the stresses of everyday living, observers of the epidemic have found. If her child is sick, a woman is more likely to tend to the child than to herself. She's the last on the totem pole, Fischl said.