National Women and Girls AIDS Awareness Day, a nationwide observance that raises awareness and promotes action in the fight against HIV/AIDS, took place on March 10. As the nation turns its attention to this important cause, women and girls around the world continue to be affected by HIV/AIDS in high numbers. According to reports from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, HIV is the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age across the globe.
HIV is a virus that can cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, a disease that diminishes the body’s ability to fight off infection. Unprotected intercourse is the primary way HIV is spread, but it can also be shared through IV drug use, blood transfusion or from mother to baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
Despite the fact that HIV/AIDS-related deaths are significantly lower in the United States when compared with other regions of the world, the disease remains a serious public health issue. According to statistics from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, roughly 280,000 women are affected by AIDS in the United States today.
When the disease was first reported in the early 1980s, men were primarily infected. Today, more and more women are affected by HIV/AIDS. According to information from the Office on Women’s Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services, one in four Americans who lives with HIV is a woman; with African American women being the most affected.
“Over the last two decades, the proportion of estimated AIDS cases diagnosed among women has more than tripled, from 7 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2009,” said Dr. Regina Benjamin, Surgeon General of the United States, in a report issued by the Office of National AIDS Policy. “Women of color are especially impacted—HIV diagnosis rates for black women are nearly 20 times the rate for white women. HIV infection is one of the leading causes of death among black and Latina women age 25-44 years.”
According to information from the CDC, approximately one in five people who are infected by HIV do not know they are infected. Getting tested for STDs, including HIV on a regular basis is an extremely important part of protecting yourself and your loved ones. In addition, sharing medical histories between sex partners is vital because 85 percent of newly diagnosed HIV infections among women and girls in the US result from sexual relations with an infected male counterpart.
As in the case of other diseases, early diagnosis of HIV can lead to a better prognosis. Timely treatment of HIV not only reduces the risk of transmission, but it can prolong a person’s lifespan significantly. Pregnant women need to be extra vigilant to ensure the prevention of transmission to unborn children.
There is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS, but an array of medications can be used in tandem to manage and control the disease. Over the years, doctors have learned that it is best to combine different classes of drugs to prevent creating viral strains that may become immune to single therapies.
There are a few new treatments on the horizon. “There are new microbicide studies that suggest some efficacy in reduction of transmission of HIV,” said Michael Kolber, MD, Director of the University of Miami’s Comprehensive AIDS Program. Furthermore, scientists from the University of Utah have developed a new kind of “molecular condom,” in the form of a vaginal gel that is inserted prior to intercourse, which then becomes semisolid when it encounters semen. In effect, it works to trap HIV particles and prevent them from infecting vaginal cells.
“Preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is the new kid on the block,” said Kolber. This involves encouraging high-risk, but HIV negative people, to take antiretroviral medication on a daily basis to lower their chances of getting infected if they are exposed to HIV. To date, PrEP has only been shown to be effective in men who have sex with men. According to Kolber, “Whether this modality will catch on because of cost and other factors remains to be seen, but may translate into prevention for women, as well.”
CDC. MMWR, Vol. 57, No. 39; 2008
*This blog post was originally published at Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR)*