Women with AIDS, Fastest Rising Category, Are Also Most Invisible

Article excerpt

Mary is ill and silent; like many women who are HIV positive, she hides her disease to avoid its stigma, even though she supports a baby with AIDS. Such women, say experts, are very much alone.

Mary, a 38-year-old divorcee with a master's degree in business administration, was infected with the HIV virus through heterosexual intercourse. She is among the rising number of women diagnosed each year with AIDS. While women make up only 15 percent of AIDS cases in the United States, they and children are the fastest-growing group of people suffering from the disease, according to a study in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Now, nearly 12 years into the AIDS epidemic, a large-scale, long-term study of how women react to the AIDS virus is under way. The Women's Interagency HIV Study, or WIHS, will follow 2,000 infected women and 500 women at high risk for infection. The federally funded nationwide study, budgeted at $10 million for the first of four years, will run in tandem with a smaller study begun in April 1993 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

HIV can be transmitted through certain unprotected sexual activities, needle sharing during intravenous drug use, blood transfusions or from mother to fetus through the bloodstream. Someone carrying the virus can be free of symptoms for years. AIDS occurs when the immune system deteriorates to a certain level or the individual contracts one of the infections covered by the official AIDS definition: pneumonia, Kaposi's sarcoma (a cancer found largely among men) or cervical cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease (among women).

Women are twice as vulnerable to AIDS than men, according to an Italian research group, possibly because a larger genital surface is exposed to the virus and possibly because semen remains in the woman's body after intercourse. Women with persistent hard-to-treat vaginal-yeast infections are urged to get tested be condition frequently marks the presence of HIV Similarly, a woman with a positive Pap smear, suggesting cervical cancer, should get tested for HIV

Many cancers are more aggressive in AIDS patients than in the general population, says Susan Krown, director of AIDS clinical trials at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She cited a study in which 63 percent of HIV-positive women experienced recurrence of cervical cancer, compared with 13 percent in HIV-negative women. …