Women and HIV: Cut Your Risks

Do women get HIV?
Absolutely.

Is it common in Canada?
About 1 in 4 new infections are in women. (See page 27 of PHAC’s HIV/AIDS Epi Update for more info on HIV and women in Canada)

Is HIV a concern for the average woman?
While HIV is not as common a STI as chlamydia or herpes, heterosexual transmission is on the rise (see the Epi Update cited above for more detail).

 

What is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency virus. It enters the body through direct access to the bloodstream and attacks specific cells in the immune system called CD4s (some of the “fighter” cells in our immune systems). HIV takes over CD4 cells and makes copies of itself. The body responds to the destruction of CD4 cells by making more CD4 cells, which HIV takes over, and so the cycle goes. Eventually, the body can’t keep up with the cycle and HIV becomes more dominant, weakening the immune system. HIV doesn’t create infection, but creates an environment in which the body is vulnerable to infections. This can lead to Advanced HIV Disease, or AIDS.

HIV has been a global epidemic for three decades. Depending on where you live in the world, treatments are available. Nevertheless, HIV remains an incurable virus that weakens the immune system, eventually leading to life-threatening infections. Treatments can slow down the process, improving length and quality of life, but they have their own set of concerns for long-term use.

 

How is HIV transmitted?

Sexual transmission can occur when infectious body fluids of a person with HIV gain access to the bloodstream of another person. Think of this equation:

Body fluids with high concentration of HIV
Body fluids with high concentration of HIV include, blood, semen, vaginal and anal fluids. Tears and saliva are not infectious.

AND
activities which exchange body fluids
Activities that readily exchange body fluids with high concetration of HIV include unprotected vaginal and anal sex and sharing sex toys between partners without cleaning them or using a condom. Oral sex is potentially risky – unless you’re using condoms or dental dams, there’s bound to be an exchange of body fluids. If you’re into recreational drugs, sharing equipment can be high risk.

EQUAL
risk of infection with HIV or other STI
Your risk is dependent on your interruption of the equation. Talk to your partner about past and present STIs, and about getting tested, including an HIV test. Doctors may be biased against testing women, particularly if you’ve been in a long-term relationship, because they don’t think there’s a risk, but if you want to get tested, press for it. Make your activities safe: use condoms for penetration, and for oral sex use condoms and dental dams. If you’re sharing any kind of drug use equipment, don’t.

What can I do to avoid it?

Safer sex can help you avoid a number of STIs, including HIV. This means using a condom for vaginal or anal intercourse, using condoms on shared sex toys, and using barriers or condoms for oral sex. If you feel uncomfortable talking about condom use, consider the alternative- disclosing an STI like HIV (a legal obligation in Canada). A little practice can make condom use easier, fun and freeing- taking charge is powerful.

 

More Information

 

Youshouldknow.ca: Sexual health science, culture and news for women edging to middle age, parents and educators. Info on sexually transmitted infections, relationship dynamics, aging and sexual health, and sex education.

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