The Feminization of HIV
by Jennifer Wider, MD
(Washington DC, 1/23/03): For the first time since the discovery of the human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV), women account for approximately half of those
affected worldwide. According to the United Nations annual report, AIDS Epidemic
Update 2002, approximately 50 percent of new HIV cases were women and a
disproportionate number of cases under the age of 15 were also female. The total
number of infections more than tripled from seven percent in 1985 to 25 percent
in 2001 among female adolescents, according to data from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
Research has established that factors related to biologic sex play a major
role in determining male and female vulnerability to the HIV infection. As of
2001, heterosexual intercourse was responsible for more than 80 percent of adolescent
and adult HIV cases. Heterosexual sex renders a woman more vulnerable to HIV
because the semen comes in contact with a large mucosal surface area, which
can readily absorb the virus. Thus the transmission of HIV from a man to a woman
is two times more "efficient" than the transmission of the virus from
a woman to a man.
The HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa has played a significant role in this
worldwide gender shift. Roughly one in 11 adults are infected, of which 58 percent
are female. African women are at higher risk of infection than African men in
the same age group, according to "Growing, Evolving HIV/AIDS Pandemic is
Producing Social and Economic Fallout" from the January 1, 2003 issue of
The Journal of the American Medical Association. A variety of cultural
and social factors prevent women from refusing sex or mandating safer sexual
practices. Consequently, African women are more likely to engage in sex with
older partners who have had more sexual encounters, raising their chances of
being exposed to HIV. There is also limited exposure to safe-sex education programs
for both genders. According to a November, 2001 CNN report, the number of child
rapes have increased in South Africa due to a prevailing myth that having sex
with a virgin can protect a person from contracting AIDS.
"In parts of Africa, genital ulcer disease is quite prevalent and ulcers
on sexual parts facilitate the transmission of HIV," according to Jonathan
Samuels, MD, infectious disease specialist and vice president of medical affairs
at St. Catherine's Hospital in Smithtown, New York. This is another risk factor
contributing to the growing number of female HIV patients in Africa.
While the growing numbers of HIV cases in Africa contribute significantly to
these changing demographics, changes in incidence in the U.S. also contribute.
"There are larger numbers of women infected, especially in minority communities
where many times it is unacceptable to discuss the topic," explains Dr.
Samuels. The inability to engage in open discussion about the disease prevents
educational efforts in communities that need it the most.
Although African-American and Hispanic women comprise roughly 25 percent of
the total American female population, together they represent more than 82 percent
of HIV cases in the U.S., according to research conducted by the National Institutes
of Health. Women of ethnic and racial minorities have been disproportionately
affected for the last ten years.
Women in general experience different symptoms of HIV than men. While both
genders experience the early, non-specific manifestations of the disease including
low-grade fever, lethargy, night sweats and weight loss, women are more likely
to encounter a more severe weight loss which can result in wasting syndrome.
Men are eight times more likely to develop Kaposi's Sarcoma, a rare skin cancer.
Some studies have shown HIV-infected women to be more susceptible to the herpes
With respect to the transition to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome),
there are also sex differences. HIV affects white blood cells in the body called
CD4 lymphocytes; when CD4 cells fall below 200mL of blood, a person is at greater
risk of developing full-blown AIDS. Scientists have shown that HIV-infected
women will die at higher CD4 cell counts than men, and since CD4 counts determine
when to begin antiretroviral treatment, therapy may be delayed for HIV-infected
The Society for Women's
Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization
whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded
in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate
inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need
for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates
increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex
differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease,
and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica
Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its
Board of Directors.
For more information on clinical research, click here.
Created: 1/23/2003  - J. Wider, MD
Reviewed: 1/24/2003  - Donnica Moore, MD