March 7, 2014

Guest Poster: Kristine Patterson, MD, Associate Professor, School of Medicine, The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

March 10, 2014 marks the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day–a day for communities across the nation to educate women and girls on how to protect themselves from becoming infected with HIV and reinforce the importance of receiving treatment and care if already infected. Whether planned or just coincidence, the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day occurs within days of the conclusion of the 21st Conference on Retrovirus and Opportunistic Infections (CROI). This year’s CROI was filled with promising results from trials of new antiretroviral therapies with new mechanisms of action. The highly anticipated results from non-human primate studies using these new antiretrovirals delivered as a long acting injectable, thereby eliminating the need for taking pills every day, showed encouraging results for both treatment and prevention of HIV.

As I listened to these presentations, I continue to be amazed that 30 years into the epidemic, the number of women enrolled in HIV clinical trials is highly disproportionate to the number of women infected with HIV. Currently, there are over 25 million women living with HIV in the world; the highest rate of new infections continues to be in African young women aged 15-25 years with one young girl becoming infected every minute. Young women in developing countries throughout the world have a one in 10 chance of becoming infected with HIV each year. These statistics have not improved despite the roll-out of widespread antiretroviral programs. In the United States, 1 in 4 persons living with HIV is a woman. Racial/ethnic minority women continue to be disproportionally affected with an estimated 1 in 32 Black/African American women becoming infected with HIV over the course of their lifetime compared to 1 in 106 Hispanic women. In other words, two thirds of all new infections occur in women of color, which is over 20 times the risk of white women.

Programs such as the Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day are beneficial. The number of new infections in women in the US appears to be decreasing although the disparity remains. Today and every day, members of every aspect of society—health care providers, the religious community, social services, educators and all community members—have a responsibility to educate the women and girls on the risks of HIV (and other sexually transmitted infections).

One of the main contributing factors is women do not know the HIV status of their potential (or current) sexual partners.

Key Message: Before entering into a new sexual relationship women and their partner should undergo HIV testing. Both individuals should be tested for HIV on a regular basis if not in a mutually monogamous relationship.

Other sexually transmitted infections can increase the risk of becoming infected or transmitting HIV.

Key Message: Screen regularly for sexually transmitted infections.

Scientists are beginning to appreciate that many women may have either or both vaginal and anal intercourse. Women may have anal intercourse as a form of birth control. There is also the false belief women cannot get HIV through anal intercourse. However, unprotected anal intercourse is actually of higher risk than vaginal intercourse.

Key message: Condoms should be used regardless of type of intercourse—oral, vaginal or anal. Other forms of birth control will not protect you against HIV or sexually transmitted infections. Empower women to say “No condom, no sex!”

Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is yet another tool the CDC is using in working towards curbing the epidemic. They cannot act alone. All of us have an obligation to protect our daughters, mothers, family and friends. Women at large need to raise their voices against the stigma and advocate for all women to be tested, get treated and stay in care. Scientists and community members need to advocate for more research dedicated to the prevention and treatment of HIV in women around the globe. Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day should not just occur on March 10th but every day!

Visit the CDC page.

Visit the DHHS Office on Women’s Health page.