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HIV Remains Serious Threat

by Jennifer Wider, MD

(Washington DC 6/23/04):  The number of women in the world infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) has been consistently climbing over the past years.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women currently comprise 50 percent of the global HIV/AIDS population.

In the United States, HIV/AIDS is the fourth leading cause of death for women between the ages of 35-44, and the sixth leading cause of death for women between the ages of 25-34.  Heterosexual intercourse accounts for more than 80 percent of all teenage and adult HIV infections in the world, according to National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. 

Being tested for HIV/AIDS has not become routine in the United States.  The Kaiser Family Foundation's recent "Survey of Americans on HIV/AIDS" shows that only 50 percent of people over the age of 18 have ever been tested for HIV.  Among those not tested, the most common reason was a feeling of not being at risk.

The survey also revealed mistaken beliefs about the test itself among American adults.  Nearly 25 percent thought the test was part of their annual physical exam and many didn't realize that it needed to be formally requested by the patient.  People participating in the survey disclosed concerns about being stigmatized for getting tested.

Despite the numbers being screened for HIV/AIDS, significant strides have been made in diagnosing the disease.  Researchers at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine in Baltimore have developed a new test that can detect HIV earlier and monitor the disease better than ever before.

"This test is ultra-sensitive and detects a component of the virus rather than the body's immune response," Niel Constantine, Ph.D., a researcher at the institute, said.  "The new test has the potential to detect the virus earlier than twelve days post event."

The hope is that early detection leads to earlier treatment and a better outcome for the patient, but more studies are needed to confirm this assumption.  At the present time, the new test is too expensive to be used for screening the general population.  It will most likely play a role in screening blood donations at national registries. 

The new test will also play a role in monitoring the disease in patients who have HIV/AIDS.  "It can provide an early indication that the disease is mutating in patients who have already been treated and warn doctors that treatment needs to be altered," Constantine explained.

As diagnostic tests and treatment options become more sophisticated, the most effective way to combat HIV/AIDS remains education.  "The first thing is education and condom use," Constantine said.  Protected sex is vital in the prevention of these diseases.

Sexual relationships between men and women seem to pose higher risks for women.  There is much evidence that women who participate in heterosexual intercourse are at higher risk for HIV infection than their male counterparts.  During unprotected sex, a woman is two times more likely to absorb the virus than a man because the infected semen comes in contact with a larger mucous membrane surface area.

HIV/AIDS seems to affect women and men differently.  For example, women tend to experience dramatic reductions in body weight more often than men, which may result in wasting syndrome.  There are gender-specific consequences of HIV/AIDS for women including recurrent vaginal yeast infections and pelvic inflammatory disease.  There is also much evidence suggesting that women and men respond differently to certain drug treatments.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day.  For more information on HIV testing or to find a testing location in your area, visit www.hivtest.org, a service provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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.

Created: 6/23/2004  -  Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 7/5/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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