BENNINGTON — For women and girls, today is National HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to recognize the impact of the virus, with the theme of the year being "The Best Defense is a Good Offense."
According to amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, one in five women account for new HIV diagnoses and deaths caused by AIDS, in addition to African American women constituting for a prevalence rate of three and half times that of a white woman.
For Vermont, Daniel Daltry, HIV/STD/Hepatitis program chief at the Department of Health thinks there are plenty of service providers that are engaged with the community to support those who carry the syndrome. He said 80 percent of those diagnosed in the state are over the age of 40.
The most common way to acquire HIV is through heterosexual sex and women are twice as likely to get it from sexual intercourse than men, amfAR reports. Some reasons for this susceptibility could be because of a woman's biology and socioeconomic status, Daltry explained.
"When we talk about the size of folks living with the virus in Vermont, women represent less than 20 percent of our cases," he said. "They're a very small group and when you look at the elevated risk for women, they're 10 times more likely to contract the infection. They're still impacted in Vermont and one of the things we deal with is a stigma. On some levels it's great that not many women aren't impacted, but if you look at a community feeling, women could feel impacted living with the infection compared to other counterparts."
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, spreads through body fluids and attacks the body's immune system and overtime the cells that fight off infection can be destroyed. If not treated, HIV leads to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, the last stage of HIV, which cannot be removed completely, even with treatment. It can, however, be controlled with antiretroviral therapy or ART that is taken every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
HIV and AIDS used to be prevalent in only large metropolitan areas, but with the rise in substance abuse in rural areas, especially among young people, there has been a rise in the number of infections transmitted through injections, amfAR Policy Associate Jennifer Sherwood explained. This is also true for the southern part of the country.
"If you have states and counties where there's less access to medical care and a pre-existing gap in coverage, there will be a higher risk of HIV," she said. "A lot of southern states are not expanding medicaid and their coverage is not as high as some other states who are expanding. Rates in the south are much higher than other locations."
She elaborated on the various factors that play into the risk of young women contracting the virus. For example, their exposure to violence, if they're head of the household and need to care for other's health, sex education, race, transportation and support.
"Less health care coverage and low quality sex education overlap in places in the U.S.," she said. "It's the perfect storm with a combination of factors not creating an environment for sex health education."
Southern Vermont has an organization called the AIDS Project and hosts an annual walk in Brattleboro that will be on May 14 this year. Cynthia Austin from the project's Bennington office said she has a case load of about 30 people with HIV/AIDS and a third of them are women.
"We have some women who culturally and spiritually, don't believe it's a virus but a medical condition or that someone put voodoo on them," Austin said. "We haven't seen the latest round of positives but I think it will pick up now that we're seeing more heroin use on the street."
The AIDS Project was founded by volunteers in 1988 as a grassroots, community-based group and acts as a statewide role to help Vermont fight against the AIDS epidemic. Resources and other information can be found on www.aidsprojectsouthernvermont.org.
A high risk factor for transmission includes using or sharing an unclean injection drug tool or by reusing a needle or syringe. According to Aids Map, the infection risk from an injection ranges from .63 to 2.4 percent.
"One of the things I love about Vermont is across the state, no one should feel like a number, we have a lot of systems all over the state," Daltry said. "We're on the edge of an incredible opportunity aligning with national HIV strategy and the resources. I would like to think that it's getting better, but any infection isn't a good thing. We still continue to have new infections, but we also have great systems of care and are making radical improvements."
—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.