- (WebMD) -- When the acronyms "AIDS" and "HIV"
first were made known to the world in the early 1980s, it was usually in
the context of a strange and deadly new disease that primarily afflicted
gay men, recipients of tainted blood transfusions and people who shared
needles for injecting illegal drugs. Millions of people have died of acquired
immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) since then, and many of them have not
been junkies, blood recipients or gay men: A very large number have been
women who acquired the infection through heterosexual sex.
- An international crisis
- In fact, the number of women with AIDS worldwide has
been rising dramatically, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, where
it is more common for it to be transmitted heterosexually than otherwise.
According to CARE, one of the world's largest international relief and
development organizations, more than 9 million women are living with AIDS
-- 41 percent of all reported cases.
- Situation in the United States
- In 1996, HIV and AIDS was the fourth-leading cause of
death for women in the United States between the ages of 25 and 44. Many
of these women were given HIV through sex with infected male partners who
were injection-drug users. Nearly 1 million Americans are currently infected
with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, the germ that causes AIDS), of
whom around 150,000 are women. Between 1985 and 1997 the proportion of
AIDS cases in American women, including adolescents, rose from 7 percent
to 22 percent, more than tripling.
- More than one way to get it
- The problem is compounded because many American women
with AIDS may have been infected through a combination of two modes of
transmission -- sex and their own intravenous drug use. In addition to
the usual risks that come with sharing needles, these drug-abusing women
are often having unprotected sex with men who share needles with others.
And even if the women are not themselves having sex with multiple partners,
the men in their lives may well be -- leading to an elaborate, increasingly
risky chain reaction through which HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases
are transmitted in all directions.
- But HIV and AIDS are not just a threat to women who abuse
drugs or who have sex with drug abusers. Any woman (or any man) who has
sex with more than one partner is at risk, particularly if that sexual
contact is made without correct and consistent use of latex condoms. Young
women under the age of 25 are at much greater risk than older women --
not only do they tend to have more sexual partners and to engage in riskier
sexual behaviors, they are often unable to negotiate condom use and safer
sex practices with their partners.
- Much work to be done
- Despite the recent promising news about treatments, the
AIDS epidemic is not yet over. Although AIDS-related deaths among women
in the United States have been decreasing over the past few years because
of better HIV and AIDS medications, they have not been decreasing as fast
as AIDS-related deaths in men. But the best strategy against HIV and AIDS
is still prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is
actively building better HIV and AIDS prevention programs for women; implementing
community-level projects to help young women and ethnic women understand
the importance of condom use; and addressing with them the convergence
of HIV infection and intravenous drug use. Whether such programs can be
developed for the rest of the world remains to be seen.