March 10th marks the 11th year of observance in the United States of the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Studies show that while women and girls over 13 make up 25 percent of people living with HIV1, only 50 percent are seeking care and 32 percent have their virus under control2. Our goals as a nation focus on identifying the specific hurtles that women face in terms of education around HIV/AIDS prevention, transmission and care.
HIV infection happens across all races, ages, sexual orientation. If a woman a) is sexually active and does not use barrier methods of protection like condoms and dental dams, b) participates in needle sharing for drugs, c) does not use sterilized equipment for tattoos or piercings or d) any combination of the mentioned behaviors, she is at risk for a possible infection. Using barrier methods to prevent fluid (vaginal, semen, blood) transmission during oral, anal or vaginal sex greatly reduces the risk of infection. Reduction of needle sharing as well as clean needle exchange programs through government and community health organizations can also bring down the risk. Finally, making sure the equipment used by tattoo and piercing artists is sterilized will keep you safe from exposure to potential fluids from prior clients.
Transmission of HIV during unprotected vaginal sex is higher due to the larger surface area of the vaginal walls compared to the penis3. Additionally, while the penis has less time of exposure to potentially-HIV positive fluids during sex, semen can stay in the vagina for many days after sex increasing the chance of infection for that person. A common misconception is that women who have sex with women (WSW) are not at risk for HIV transmission. However, if either partner has ever had sex with a partner with a penis, engaged in needle sharing drug use, or non-sterilized tattoo/piercing, they are still at risk. Also, having another sexually transmitted disease (STD) increases the risk of contracting HIV. Untreated STIs, like syphilis and gonorrhea can increase the chance of getting HIV4.The only way to prevent HIV transmission is by testing of all partners and using condoms and dental dams for protection.
Testing is the best method for prevention and jumpstarting any treatment. By getting tested and knowing your status, you reduce the risk of unknowingly spreading HIV to your partners. Healthcare professionals also encourage having past and current sexual partners to get tested to increase their knowledge of their own status. If one partner is HIV positive and the other HIV negative, there are ways to keep everyone safe. An HIV negative partner can reduce their risk of contracting sexually-transmitted HIV by 90% if they take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as prescribed by their primary care provider.5. If you think you might’ve already been exposed to HIV, there is a post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) that is recommended for up to 48-72 hours after potential exposure. If a mother is HIV positive and pregnant, there are resources to prevent transmission to child during birth and afterwards during breastfeeding.
Even when she knows her status, about one in four women postpones seeking medical care due to financial barriers, depression, and threat of partner violence or stigma5. Having a network of support greatly increases the likelihood of treatment. The National AIDS Hotline (800-232-4636) provides assistance with testing and treatment locations while the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) provides support with partner violence and talking points on discussing your status with family.
Regardless of the type of relationship you are in, HIV prevention is critical. Your best offense is a good defense by becoming knowledgeable about your health you can take control of your life.