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AIDS and women: The lower rung of the ladder?

BRATTLEBORO—The Women’s Program is destined to lose its federal funding next year as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shifts how it allocates money from prevention models to testing and treating people with HIV.

Heterosexual women are at a higher risk of contracting HIV than heterosexual men, and the rates of women contracting the virus have increased, said Sue Conley, HIV Prevention Specialist for the Women’s Program.

Ignorance and stigma make it difficult for people to access quality information and resources, she said.

Although the HIV prevention specialists at the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont agree with the CDC’s plans, they feel the loss of the Women’s Program represents another example of women’s health issues as the bottom rung on the priority ladder.

“It feels like, ‘Here we go again,’” said Alex Potter, HIV specialist for the Men’s Program, adding that, in general, women’s health issues get shortchanged on a national level.

According to Conley, biology contributes to women’s HIV risk. Men can contract HIV from women, said Conley, but it’s more difficult for that transmission to occur than vice-versa.

She said women are exposed to more fluids during sex than men, and the vagina can contain small abrasions, making it easier for the virus to enter their system. Also, the tissues of the vagina are more absorbent than those within the tip of a penis.

Vaginal fluid carries a smaller viral load than semen.

Also, if a woman lives with an abusive man who contracts the virus, she might not have the control over her body and health to protect herself, she said.

Women in abusive relationships or who have been raped often can’t advocate for themselves by, for example, asking a man to use a condom, Conley said.

There’s a 25-percent chance a pregnant woman will pass the HIV virus to her baby, said Conley. This statistic drops to 2 percent if the mother-to-be is taking anti-retroviral medication.

Pregnant women with HIV are looked at by society differently, according to Conley, who said that pregnant, HIV-positive women are often asked, “How could you?” or “How dare you?”

“Men don’t have to face that challenge,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #138 (Wednesday, February 8, 2012).

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