HIV infection rates for women are at an all-time high. Even though more men have HIV, women are catching up. Today, about one in four of the Americans who are living with HIV are female.
Over time, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks the immune system. HIV causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a disease that weakens the body’s ability to fight infection and certain cancers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported U.S. AIDS cases in adolescent and adult women almost quadrupled from seven percent in 1985 to 26 percent in 2002. There is some positive news. AIDS in women has fallen and is leveling off due to antiretroviral therapies which help stop the progression of HIV to AIDS.
The primary method of HIV transmission is through heterosexual intercourse. This includes vaginal and anal intercourse, as well as oral sex. While HIV infection can happen in both sexes during sex, the risk for women is far greater. They are twice as likely to become infected from vaginal sex for several biological reasons.
The exposure of vaginal mucosal tissue to seminal fluids during intercourse is the most likely culprit. The lining of the vagina provides a large area, which can be exposed to HIV-infected semen. Semen has higher levels of HIV than vaginal fluids. More semen is exchanged during sex than vaginal fluids.
Even though research shows men give HIV more easily than women, women can still pass HIV onto uninfected partners — both male and female — through sex. This is because HIV is in blood (including menstrual blood), vaginal fluids, and in cells in the vaginal and anal walls.
While men and women experience many of the same symptoms, women have some distinctively female signs of HIV infection. These include persistent or severe vaginal infections; pap smears that indicate cervical dysplasia or other abnormal changes; and pelvic infections such as pelvic inflammatory disease. Other signs and symptoms are genital warts and ulcers and severe mucosal herpes infections.
Women who only have sex with women are not safe from HIV. Experts think it’s possible for a woman to contract HIV through sexual contact with an HIV-infected woman. This could happen if soft tissues, such as in the mouth, come in contact with the vaginal fluid or menstrual blood of a woman infected with HIV.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
World Health Organization (WHO)