Spreading Knowledge, Not HIV, for Women

AIDS awareness among United States needs to increase

March 13, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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Most people are aware of the heavy toll that AIDS has taken on sub-Saharan Africa, and in the United States, the male homosexual community. However, a growing segment of people affected by AIDS are females in the United States.

HIV/AIDS knows no boundaries of class, race, sexual orientation, or gender. But all these groupings have their own unique issues, and require different approaches to reducing the rates of infection and death. HIV/AIDS has spread rapidly among women in the U.S., with diagnosis for women tripling in the past two decades.

“Every 47 minutes, a woman tests positive for HIV/AIDS,” Mary Bowers, a public health advisor for the Office of Women's Health, a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Health Services, told dailyRx. 

How HIV/AIDS impacts women and girls

Females comprise 51 percent of the U.S. population, and they account for 23 percent of new HIV infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's out of one million people living with HIV in the country.

But HIV/AIDS does not infect all women equally. Statistics show that the virus takes a disproportionate toll on black and Latina/ Hispanic women.

In 2009, 57 percent of all new HIV infections were among black women, 21 percent were in white women, and 18 percent were in Latina women.

HIV infection is among the leading causes of death for black and Latina women aged between 25 and 44 years old.

Bowers, of the Office of Women's Health, suggested that poverty influences the rate of infection among women. That's been often repeated by other public health experts: It's not just race, but circumstances that create higher risk.

It's easier for HIV to spread in communities that already have higher rates of HIV. The virus is spread through sexual transmission, injection drug use, and mother-to-child transmission.

That last mode of transmission is one that's unique to women. Women bear the burden of care in families, but they can also be affected by domestic abuse. Often, they don't have a choice to say no to unprotected sex.

Professor Gail Wyatt, a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of California Los Angeles, told the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS that trauma and HIV are highly correlated for women. Women who are HIV-positive are 2.5 times more likely to report abuse.

Minority women also have limited access to health care services. And all women with HIV face fear, stigma, and discrimination on a daily basis.

What you can do

To reduce the number of women who become infected with HIV, the CDC recommends these actions to reduce the risk of becoming infected:

  • Abstinence. Not having sex is the only sure way to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you're with, and make sure that you have both recently tested negative for HIV. Have a conversation about your past behaviors that may have put you at risk for HIV exposure, including sex and drug use.
  • Don't share needles or syringes. HIV is not spread through casual contact, but the sharing of bodily fluids will increase your risk for getting infected.

Bowers, of the Office of Women's Health, offered this piece of advice: “I would encourage people to get tested for HIV. If you are between 18 and 64, and you feel that you might have placed yourself at risk by having unprotected sex, get tested. That's a start.”

One in five people with HIV don't know that they are infected. They may not be experiencing symptoms, and if they are engaging in risky behaviors, they could be unknowingly spreading HIV in their communities.

That's why awareness and getting tested are so important, said Bowers. You can find where to get tested at no or little cost at aids.gov.