Gene Copello

(WOMENSENEWS)–Today marks the 16th Annual World AIDS Day, and the fittingness of this year’s theme–the toll on women and girls–was recently highlighted on prime-time national television. Not by AIDS Day organizers; but by Gwen Ifill of PBS, when she moderated the vice presidential debate in early October.

Ifill led into a question about what the candidates would do about the epidemic by pointing out that black women in the UnitedStates between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their (white) counterparts.

Vice President Dick Cheney–touted after that debate by TV commentators for his firm grounding on so many issues–fell flat on this one. He told Ifill point blank that he didn’t know the disease was hitting black women with such disproportionate force.

With hope, Cheney is now more familiar with the gender profile of AIDS in the United States, where women account for more than 25 percent of new AIDS cases and 30 percent of new HIV infections. And with help from Ifill he must now realize that African American women currently account for a stunning 64 percent of new AIDS cases.

Chance to Raise Awareness

As Ifill’s question shows, this year’s AIDS Day–an occasion to mourn those lost to HIV/AIDS and to push for an end to the disease–offers a much-needed chance to raise awareness about the toll the epidemic takes on women.

It’s also a chance to urge political leaders to do all they can to shield women from the disease. This includes reinforcing women’s rights, speeding medical research and supporting public-awareness efforts that reach out to the women who are most at risk.

Half of the 40 million adults living with HIV/AIDS worldwide–19.2 million–are women.

The majority of these women are in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region of the world most impacted by AIDS. Here, about 60 percent of adults living with HIV–or 13.3 million–are women.

Hurt by their widespread ignorance about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and by scant access to prevention information, young women and female teens are 2-to-2.5 times more likely to be HIV-infected than their male counterparts, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS reports.

AIDS has become a leading cause of death for women between 25 and 44 years old. It’s impossible to imagine the emotional and economic devastation of losing so many women in their crucial working, child-bearing and family rearing years. The 14 million children now orphaned by AIDS are perhaps the saddest way to quantify the grief and general upset to our global community.

In many countries, women lack the basic freedoms and powers that could help protect them from infection. Many have no access to education, which restricts their ability to negotiate safer-sex practices or even understand female-controlled HIV prevention methods.

Delaying Care

Women also tend to put off their own care to ensure that the basic needs of their children and families are being met. Researchers don’t have data on this yet, but they say they pick up anecdotal evidence all the time.

Tragically, the needs of women with HIV/AIDS often fall to the bottom of a heap of family needs throughout the world, including in the United States.

If a family is homeless, the basic need for food, shelter and safety will often preempt any thoughts by a woman of concentrating on her HIV/AIDS care. There is a saying in the field, that “housing is medicine.” Without a roof over their heads, people can not concentrate on treatment. They can’t even refrigerate their medicine.

Additionally, HIV/AIDS medications, where available, may work differently in women, a possibility that poses a threat to their care and treatment. Most HIV/AIDS medications were originally tested on men and as research is beginning to show, women’s bodies may respond differently.

We Need to Know More

Much needs to be done if we are to slow and eventually stop the epidemic’s attack on women.

We need to know more about how AIDS medications affect women. We need to know more about the routes of infection among women and female teens and the best means of prevention and treatment.

In particular, we need to press for research on microbicides. These are topical products that prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They offer women crucial control over their own protection, free from the potential meddling or lack of cooperation of their sex partners. They could come in the form of gels, suppositories, films, creams, a sponge or a ring that releases the active ingredient over time. Currently, some 60 products are being investigated and we need must waste no time in getting those that are safe and effective into the hands of the women who need them.

We need to work on breaking the mother-to-child transmission of HIV, specifically in developing countries where baby formula is not readily available.

We also need a comprehensive prevention, care and treatment approach that takes into account culturally diverse and linguistically appropriate messages. This can be as simple as using the right slang terms and graphics. In France, for instance, one AIDS-prevention ad features dancing condoms.

This probably wouldn’t work well in the more censorious United States. But when it comes to saving the lives, our best approach should be, anything goes.

Dr. Gene Copello is executive director of The AIDS Institute, a national nonprofit AIDS organization that promotes action for social change.

Mary Ann T. Green, director of communications at the AIDS Institute, contributed to this article.

For more information:

The AIDS Institute:

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