In 1982, when women were diagnosed with AIDS, it was thought that they must have been infected through intravenous drug use. Soon, it was realized that women could become infected through normal sexual intercourse and that they are at special risk of contracting HIV.
Worldwide, women now make up 50 percent of adults living with HIV/AIDS. “The epidemic disproportionately affects women and adolescent girls who are socially, culturally, biologically and economically more vulnerable, and who shoulder the burden of caring for the sick and dying,” reports UNAIDS.
Why is the growth of the disease among women a special concern to AIDS workers? HIV-infected women often face more discrimination than men, especially in some developing lands. If a woman is pregnant, the health of her child is endangered; if she already has children, caring for them becomes a challenge, particularly for a single mother. Further, comparatively little is known about the unique characteristics of HIV-infected women and their clinical care.
Certain cultural factors make the situation especially dangerous for women. In many countries women are not expected to discuss sexuality, and they risk abuse if they refuse sex. The men commonly have many sexual partners and unknowingly transmit HIV to them.
Some African men have sexual relations with younger women to avoid HIV or in the false belief that sex with virgins can cure AIDS. No wonder WHO state: “INTERVENTIONS MUST BE AIMED AT MEN (as well as women) if women are to be protected.”
In a healthy person, helper T cells stimulate or activate the immune system to attack infections. HIV particularly targets these helper T cells. It uses the cells to replicate itself, weakening and destroying helper T cells until the immune system is seriously compromised. Antiretroviral drugs [ARVs] disrupt this replication process.
1. HIV-INFECTED PEOPLE LOOK SICK: On average, it takes about 10 to 12 years for someone infected with HIV to develop AIDS,” says Dr. Gerald J. Stine. During this time, the HIV-infected will show few if any recognizable symptoms, but they are able to infect other people.
2. AIDS IS A HOMOSEXUAL DISEASE. In the early 1980’s, AIDS was initially identified as a homosexual disease. Today, however, heterosexual intercourse is the primary mode of HIV transmission in much of the world.
3. ORAL SEX IS “SAFE SEX.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “numerous studies have demonstrated that oral sex can result in the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.” The risk of HIV transmission through oral sex is not as high as through other sexual practices. Nevertheless, the practice has become so prevalent that some doctors expect it to become a significant route for transmitting HIV.
4. THERE IS A CURE FOR AIDS. Although antiretroviral therapy can, in some patients, slow the progression from HIV to AIDS, there is currently NO VACCINE or CURE
Even if enough ARVs were supplied to developing lands, other obstacles would have to be overcome. Some drugs need to be taken with food and clean water, but hundreds of thousands of people in some land can eat only every other day.
ARVs (often 20 or more pills daily) need to be taken at a certain time each day, but many patients do not own a timepiece. Drug combinations need to be adjusted according to a patient’s condition. But there is a critical shortage of physicians in many lands. Clearly, providing ARV therapy to developing countries will be a difficult hurdle to surmount.
Even patients in developed lands face challenges in using combination therapy. Research reveals that failure to take all prescribed drugs at scheduled times is alarmingly common. This may lead to drug resistance. Such drug-resistant strains of HIV can be transmitted to others.
Dr. Stine points to another challenge faced by HIV patients. “The paradox of HIV treatment,” he says, “is that sometimes the cure feels worse than the disease, especially when treatment begins before symptoms arise.”
HIV patients on ARVs commonly suffer from side effects including DIABETES, FAT REDISTRIBUTION, HIGH CHOLESTEROL, and DECREASED BONE density. Some side effects are life-threatening.