Tackling the female side of the AIDS epidemic means going far beyond today’s global focus on pregnant women, specialists told the world’s largest AIDS meeting Wednesday.
Already women make up half the world’s HIV infections. Adolescent girls are at particular risk in the hardest-hit parts of the world, and protecting them requires addressing the poverty, violence and discrimination that too many women experience around the world, said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta.
“These adolescent girls and young women, our sisters and daughters, represent an unfinished agenda in the AIDS response,” she told the gathering.
She echoed what has become a recurring theme of the meeting since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared Monday that gender equity is crucial to protecting women.
“Women need and deserve a voice in the decisions that affect their lives,” Clinton said.
“The pandemic has a woman’s shape,” said Annah Sango, 24, of Zimbabwe, who learned she had HIV when she was pregnant and watched her husband die of AIDS a few months later. “We have to reshape our response if we’re going to turn the tide.”
Topping the world’s anti-AIDS goals for women is the effort to nearly eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The number of babies born with HIV has been dropping steadily for several years as more infected women receive AIDS drugs during pregnancy and while they’re nursing – 57 percent of them last year, according to the United Nations.
But UNICEF HIV adviser Dr. Chewe Luo said that drop isn’t happening fast enough to meet the 2015 target date, and a key reason is that many countries focus just on protecting the baby and not on treating the mother for her own good.
New guidelines from the World Health Organization encourage countries to start lifelong treatment for all pregnant women, regardless of how healthy they may appear between pregnancies. Luo praised Malawi as the first low-income country to adopt that strategy, and she said Botswana, Rwanda, South Africa and Zambia are considering the same change.
Sexual violence and conditions of poverty that frequently lead to girls marrying in their teens for economic security, often to much older men, are chief risks in developing countries, Gupta said.