It’s all too easy for many women in our community to write off the AIDS epidemic as being a “man’s issue.” After all, the myth is that transmission between two female partners is more difficult than transmission between two male partners or a combination of male and female partners. Regardless of the risk of contraction in the bedroom, HIV is becoming an increasing concern for the women’s community. Worldwide, the face of AIDS is changing, and it’s becoming increasingly more female.
“Women and girls constitute half of the 35 million people worldwide living with HIV,” explains Dr. Susan Blumenthal, Senior Policy and Medical Advisor of amFAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. “In 2013, almost 60% of all new HIV infections among young people globally, ages 15 – 24 occurred among adolescent girls and young women.”
Blumenthal recently came to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to share her perspective and knowledge with women and concerned community members. Its purpose was to shine a spotlight on the epidemic in women and to examine sex differences in the disease, as well as to highlight new research frontiers to end AIDS in the years ahead.
“There are certain risk factors that make women and girls vulnerable to HIV,” says Blumenthal, who notes that physiology and biology are two prominent, but not sole, factors in a woman’s risk of contraction. “A woman’s vulnerability to HIV is also associated with social and economic factors. Poverty, sexism, stigma, discrimination, and lack of a quality education are among the many structural barriers that prevent women from getting the information and services they need to prevent HIV or to seek proper care if they are HIV positive.”
Blumenthal, who has served as assistant surgeon general of the United States as well as a White House health advisor, has established herself as a distinguished source for progress in HIV and AIDS research.
“As a public health physician and the country’s first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Women’s Health, my work has focused on exposing long standing inequities in women’s health and working to fix them across agencies of government and in partnership with private sector organizations,” says Blumenthal.
She believes that all sectors of society must be involved and mobilized. Educating and activating a broad range of stakeholders to secure resources necessary to boost prevention and treatment efforts are her main focus, as well as strengthening health systems at home and abroad to end AIDS in the years to come.
“Women now represent 50% of people living with HIV worldwide and the disease is the number one cause of death for females of reproductive age globally,” she explains. To improve the health and wellbeing of women with HIV, Blumenthal believes that it’s imperative to expand public outreach and education efforts about HIV, to prevent and responding to violence against women and girls, as well as to increase women’s access to quality health care.
“The HIV response cannot be a one size fits all approach,” she explains. “Diverse groups of women and girls need targeted information and HIV programs that respond to their special needs.”
It is for this reason that Blumenthal convened the first National Institute of Health conference on women and AIDS. The conference was a call to action because while there has been significant progress, the work is not yet done.
“HIV/AIDS must remain at the forefront of women’s health advocacy until the disease is found only in the history books!” With women like Blumenthal, who have dedicated their entire career to leading the mission to educating women, providing access to care, and researching to discover a cure, that day may come sooner than later.