AIDS and women

A recent national campaign launched by the Canadian AIDS Society is targeting young, heterosexual, Canadian women in promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and communicating the message it is an illness on the rise.

Contrary to popular belief, the number of individuals contracting HIV is still rising, and according to Health Canada’s HIV/AIDS 2004 update, an estimated 56,000 Canadians are currently living with the disease.

“Many people think that HIV/AIDS is a disease that is only present in third-world places like Africa,” said Canadian AIDS Society Program Coordinator Nicole Downer. “The reality is, it still exists in Canada, and women especially are at a higher risk than ever of contracting it.”

In 2003, the Women’s Health Surveillance Report revealed that out of all the individuals aged 15-29 who tested positive for HIV, almost half were women. This is a dramatic increase from 1995, when women accounted for only 17 per cent of HIV-positive people in the 15-29 age group.

Downer acknowledged that both men and women need to understand how HIV/AIDS is a growing problem in Canada, but added the campaign was specifically designed to target young women because they are the group most at risk.

“Our goal is to empower women so that they realize that they can take this issue into their own hands and protect themselves just as well as men can,” said Downer.

When HIV/AIDS first became publicized in the early 1980s it was almost entirely associated with homosexual males. According to Alisha Keast, team leader of client services at AIDS Calgary, this is a misconception still being made.

“Women think of HIV/AIDS as a man’s disease and they think it can’t happen to them,” said Keast. “People need to realize that HIV/AIDS affects a variety of populations, from youth to women to people who come from endemic countries. HIV doesn’t discriminate.”

The HIV virus can be contracted through semen, vaginal fluid, blood and breast milk, and is most commonly transmitted through drug injection and sexual contact.

Biologically, women are two to four times more susceptible to HIV than men. A woman’s large surface area in her vagina and cervix poses an increased risk when infectious fluids enter the area for a prolonged period of time. For younger women, whose genital tracts are still developing and do not have as much of a barrier to HIV, the virus poses an even greater concern.

Keast also pointed to economic dependence and power imbalance in relationships as reasons for women’s increased vulnerability to HIV.

“Women sometimes lack the safety and self-esteem to be able to negotiate safer sex,” said Keast. “If they’re in a violent relationship, they won’t necessarily take the steps to protect themselves like they should.”

Furthermore, Keast added some women still believe taking birth control will protect them from HIV and sexually transmitted infections, which is false.

Joanne DeForest, patient care manager of the Southern Alberta Clinic, said there are other misconceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS that need to be addressed. One such myth, perceived by many young people as true, is that a cure has been found.

“Despite medical advancements, we still do not have a cure,” said DeForest. “HIV is still 100 per cent fatal and once you get it, you have it for life.”

However, DeForest added the prognosis is looking more and more hopeful. With the use of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy drugs, which are currently subsidized under Alberta Healthcare, patients are able to live over 25 years longer than in the past.

Of all the individuals who contract HIV, an estimated 30-50 per cent do not experience symptoms until a number of years later.

“Lots of women will think that since they feel fine, there must be nothing wrong with them, but that has nothing to do with it,” said Keast.

The increasing rates of other sexually transmitted infections like Chlamydia and Gonorrhea among young men and women show that young people are having unprotected sex, indicating that the potential for HIV remains dangerously significant.

Both Keast and DeForest encourage young women to get tested for HIV and other infections, but more importantly, to use protective measures so they will not become another case.

Keast said more women should be using condoms, but recognized that female condoms are more expensive and harder to find than male condoms.

Keast also said HIV/AIDS is a subject not often talked about because of the stigma attached to it. She said there is still a lot of discrimination towards infected individuals, in terms of housing, employment and relationships.

“People fear that if they tell someone they have HIV, their status will be exposed,” said Keast. “We need to get rid of this stigma and start talking about HIV/AIDS again.”

Downer agreed that HIV/AIDS is an important issue young women should not be afraid to talk about.

“We would like to see young people become more aware of their risks and choices and to be able to pass that on to others,” said Downer. “That can’t happen if these issues remain on the low-down.”

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