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HIV & AIDS Health Center

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AIDS Taking on a Female Face

Women's Issues -- in U.S. as Well as Abroad -- at Heart of AIDS Prevention
WebMD Health News

June 9, 2005 - The face of the typical AIDS patient is fast becoming female. It's happening all over the world -- and the U.S. is no exception.

If you think this can't be so, follow Frances H. Priddy, MD, MPH, on her rounds at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital. The Grady AIDS ward mirrors AIDS across America, says Priddy, medical director of the Hope Clinic at Emory Vaccine Center and assistant professor of medicine at Emory University.

"When I go onto the wards at Grady with my medical students, we see that more than half the AIDS patients are women," Priddy tells WebMD. "And those women are 10-to-1 minority women. Many of these women are in their 20s. That brings the feminization of the AIDS epidemic home very quickly. It is really a catastrophe."

The Feminization of AIDS

Julie Overbaugh, PhD, of Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has studied AIDS since the early days of the epidemic.

"In this day and age, if you are talking about women's health, you have to talk about HIV and AIDS," Overbaugh tells WebMD. "One thing particularly concerning is that new infections with HIV and HIV prevalence keep going up for women. These cases are representing more and more of the HIV/AIDS population."

In a "Women's Health" special section of the journal Science, Overbaugh and Johns Hopkins/NIH researcher Tomas C. Quinn, MD, chronicle the expanding epidemic of HIV and AIDS in women.

They note that the latest CDC statistics show that U.S. AIDS is growing 15 times faster in women than in men. What is happening? Sub-Saharan Africa offers a clue. There, 60% of HIV infections -- and 75% of HIV infections in people aged 15-24 -- are in women.

"In Africa, the burden of HIV in younger women in their first decade of sexual activity is higher than that of men in the same age frame. We see their risk is several times that of their male counterparts," Overbaugh says.

It's being called the "feminization" of AIDS. Priddy does not prefer that term.

"'Feminization' implies a lot of the nice qualities of women such as grace and intuition and empowerment. Unfortunately, we are not seeing that," she says. "The proportion of women with HIV is increasing. It makes all the sense in the world that this has happened to the most vulnerable members of society, who are often the most hard hit by diseases involving sexuality. I would like to find a better word that portrays the powerlessness of women in this epidemic."

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