Anyone living with HIV/AIDS knows how difficult the disease can be, but it has a unique impact on women. Considering their role in society and biological vulnerabilities, women experience the HIV/AIDS threat in an entirely different way than men.
Women are a greater risk of heterosexual transmission than men. In fact, women are up to twice as likely to be infected when practicing unprotected sex. Any woman can be exposed to HIV, but many believe they are not at risk. HIV is largely ignored by gynecologists and women’s magazines, so women do not bother getting tested on a regular basis. In fact, most women learn they have HIV coincidentally as part of a routine test done for a new job or new insurance plan.
Women are impacted differently by the physical aspects of the disease. There is little disparity in the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS drugs, but the side effects of those treatments and the virus itself can be vastly different. Women are more likely to experience thinning legs and fat gain around the waist than men. Researchers have found when a woman is first infected, she will have lower amounts of HIV in her blood than men, but she will lose more immune cells and develop AIDS faster. Women are also more likely to have liver problems and skin rashes as a result of the HIV medications. For this reason, it is imperative women at risk for developing HIV are tested on a regular basis. The longer a person is infected before receiving treatment, the more likely the disease will progress quickly.
Often women with HIV/AIDS do not believe they can have children without passing on the disease. The virus can be transmitted to a child in two ways – during birth and breastfeeding. If an HIV positive woman does not take steps to reduce her child’s chances of being infected, the child has a one in five chance of developing the disease. For women who take the proper steps – including taking HIV medications, having a Cesarean section and feeding with formula instead of breast milk – the child’s chances of developing HIV drops to between one and two percent. Many doctors prescribe the drug Neveraprine that is administered during childbirth. It is quite effective in stopping transmission of the infection and is popular in Africa. There is no reason an HIV positive woman should believe her chances of having children have passed. Pregnancy does not make an HIV positive woman sicker and most women can continue their medication regimens throughout pregnancy.
The stigma of HIV has not changed since the disease first surface in the United States. This stigma can mean different things to women than to men. Often a woman’s fear of her own isolation from the community is secondary to fears her child will be isolated from peers. Women living with HIV/AIDS not only have to combat misconceptions about themselves, they have to worry about how those misconceptions could impact their children.
Older women are also more susceptible to developing HIV. Many of these women are post-menopausal and are not worried about practicing safe sex to avoid pregnancy. Older women can also be less educated about how HIV spreads as it was not a vital part of their school’s curriculum. In many cases, these women will mistake signs of HIV with symptoms of normal aging.
Another group of women are at the greatest risk for developing HIV – those living in sub-Saharan Africa. In the 1980s, the number of infected women roughly equaled the number of infected men. Today, the number of infected women has well overtaken the number of infected men. According to UNAIDS, the United Nation’s program on AIDS, approximately three-quarters of the women with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa. It is imperative that women around the world help these victims battle the disease. These women need our help more than ever.
Raising AIDS awareness is one of the best ways to combat this problem. Women need people to promote and protect their rights, increase education and awareness around the world and encourage the development of new preventative technologies. Until more women learn how to protect themselves, the AIDS epidemic will continue to spread through their gender.