THIRTY YEARS AGO
Do you remember the summer of ’81? Right now, chances are some of you may be conjuring up fun and pleasant memories to share.
Doctors in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco at that time, however, would have some very different memories. Strange clusters of cases of pneumonia and cancer were arising there in gay men – diseases typically only seen before in immunosuppressed patients. Diseases that were killing these patients.
FAST FORWARD TO TODAY
Thirty years on, however, and we now know that these were not primary conditions in their own right, but were secondary, in association with the disease that we now know as AIDS.
Thankfully a diagnosis of HIV infection today no longer has to represent the kind of death sentence that it did 30 years ago, but millions of people do continue to suffer around the world. Despite decades of promises of a vaccine, this sadly still remains but a promise.
THE GENDER EPIDEMIC
We now also know that AIDS is not just a disease of gay men. In contrast today, women account for almost half of all people with HIV/AIDS. Tragically, this condition represents the leading cause of death in women or reproductive age.
HIV contraction thus clearly poses very different risks and consequences for girls and boys around the globe. Frighteningly, there is an escalating risk of HIV infection/AIDS in young women and girls, with half of all new infections arising in the 15-24 year old age group. And in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, young females in this age group are twice as likely to have HIV/AIDS than their male counterparts.
WHY THE ESCALATION IN YOUNG GIRLS?
The feminization of the epidemic highlights the gender inequalities at the root of this trend, with socioeconomic issues, as well as biological factors coming into play.
- Young girls may be forced into commercial sex
- Power imbalances in some populations leave girls subjected to non-consensual sex
- Young girls often have sex with older males who are more likely to have HIV/AIDS
- Girls have less access to general life skills-based education and resources, thus leaving them more vulnerable to infection
- Girls tend to know very little about all matters of sex education, including how to protect themselves against STDs, increasing their risk of infection
- The immature genital tract of a young girl is more susceptible to damage during sexual activity, increasing the risk of HIV transmission
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Women have inevitably now become the face of HIV/AIDS across the world, constituting an increasing proportion of adults (15-49 years of age) living with the condition. To help protect women across the globe, and reduce the unique effect that the AIDS epidemic has on them we must:
- Improve women’s general, sexual and reproductive health education
- Promote and protect the human rights of women
- Introduce better post-exposure treatment
WHAT MOVES ARE UNDERWAY TO IMPROVE THE SITUATION?
UNAIDS for example has various strategy goals in place for 2015, which include addressing HIV-specific needs of women and girls, as well as a zero tolerance for gender-based violence.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is in agreement, and similarly aims “to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care interventions for all in need”, through their Global Health Sector Strategy on HIV/AIDS (2011-2015).
The WHO rightly calls on the world “to build on the collaboration, innovation and investment that have forged hard-won progress to date, establishing the foundation for success over the next five years.”
Read more about the Girl Effect, and see what you can do for the movement.
Image Credit morgueFile