This past Sunday marked World AIDS Day. The truth is every day is a good day for us to encourage our patients to know their HIV status and to educate women on ways to reduce their risk of infection.
Some facts: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women account for 20% of all new HIV infections each year. Most women with HIV (84%) are infected through heterosexual sex. The remaining women acquire HIV through intravenous drug use. Of the more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV today, almost 24% of them are women. Unfortunately, women of color, particularly African-American women, continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS. Even though black women make up only 13% of the total US population, they account for 64% of all new infections each year.
A few years ago, many physicians probably screened patients for HIV only if they were high risk, were pregnant, or requested the test. Today, I believe that is changing. ACOG’s guidelines issued in 2008 recommend that ob-gyns routinely screen all our patients between the ages of 19 and 64 for HIV, regardless of their individual risk factors. Sexually active women younger than age 19 and women older than 64 who have had multiple partners in recent years should also be tested.
A lot of progress has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but we haven’t won the war yet. Approximately one-quarter of Americans who have HIV don’t know it. The best defense our patients have is knowing their HIV status. Women who know that they are HIV-positive can take steps to reduce HIV-related illnesses, avoid unintended pregnancy, and protect their sexual partners from infection. Another benefit is that pregnant women who know their status can greatly reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (to less than 2%) by taking antiretroviral therapy.
My hope is that as more women gain health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, more of them will get tested for HIV and receive appropriate health care. Getting more people tested and receiving treatment for HIV will go a long way in preventing new infections. As ob-gyns, we must increase our efforts to routinely screen all our patients for HIV, particularly in areas where HIV infection rates are highest.