217,000 American women are infected with HIV. This represents a quarter of all the people who have this disease. The Office on Women’s Health showed that no sexual orientation, ethnicity, race or age is immune to the virus.
In a study that lasted for seven years, researchers could not find any significant difference between women who were HIV-positive and those who were HIV-negative. The director of the Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities of the University of California, psychologist Gail Wyatt, described the study as the most depressive she had ever experienced. She said that it was incredible to see that the HIV-negative women were healthy only by God’s grace because they also did all the risky things that the HIV-positive women did.
Professor of the University of California, Ruth Greenblatt, explains that men have a risk factor that they themselves can detect, which is having sex with other men and injecting drugs. For women, the risk factor is to sleep with an infected man, a man who may not be aware of his condition or who may not want to tell about it.
Michelle Anderson was diagnosed with HIV in 1999. She recalls that she was desperate at first, but after eight years of having been part of a supportive housing unit she changed her attitude. Ever since then she had been a vocal advocate for women with HIV. She wrote on the blog A Girl Like Me, for The Well Project and in 2011 won the title of Miss Plus America, a spectacle for plus sized women and teens. She fought to raise awareness and change the way HIV-positive patients are labeled. According to Anderson, HIV is a “white, gay man’s disease”, but it no longer looks like it.
The only Michelle Anderson’s life differs from someone who is not infected with HIV is the fact that she has to take a pill. Antiretroviral treatment for HIV has improved very much ever since 1996 when the three-drug concoctions were introduced. Greenblatt even says that HIV is easier to treat than type 1 diabetes because it can be treated with a single pill per day. The Office on Women’s Health stated that women who are HIV-positive and are pregnant have less than 1% chance of transmitting the virus to the baby if they take medication.
It is important to take the treatment seriously. If one takes the medicine inconsistently the virus may return and in addition be resistant to the treatment. The dosage of medication for women is based on data coming from HIV-positive men. So depending on the dosage of medication, it can sometimes be difficult for women to follow antiretroviral treatments: they may experience nausea or diarrhea.
Wyatt describes the progress in the treatment of HIV in the US not as a path, but rather as a “treadmill”. Latin and African-American women have a higher rate of HIV infection, so most of the funds have been directed to African-American men. In consequence women do not receive the attention that they need. In 1995 when Wyatt received a grant to study the disease things were different. Then there concern about women and support for them, but now only little money is directed towards them.
Today, March 10, at the annual National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, female advocates, clinicians and researchers discussed the role that women have played in treating, understanding and preventing HIV. The panel was held at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Pelton Auditorium. Dr. Connie Celum, Rev. Mary Diggs, Dr. Lara Strick, Dr. Kathy Brown and Nicole Price are some of the women who spoke at the public event and raised awareness about this disease.
In the US one in four people infected with HIV is a woman. Among those women who are HIV-positive only half of them are on treatment and only 4 out of 10 keep the virus under control. At a higher level, in countries with low and middle income all over the world, 52% of the persons who have HIV or AIDS are women (UNAIDS 2013 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic).
The main causes for the lack of treatment are poverty, the impossibility of receive health care and the fact that people are afraid to recognize their status and take the test. In the case of women the situation is more peculiar. Being used to play the role of care takers, women always put the others first. They always think about the well-being of the family, the children, household, shopping and bills.
It is of utter importance that women should find out if they are infected because with the antiretroviral treatment there is hope. HIV is no longer a death sentence; but a chronic disease for which there is treatment.
Image Source: Office of Women’s Health