HIV/AIDS and the Disease Experience of Women

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HIV/AIDS is a major public health issue that has affected millions of lives worldwide (33 million as of 2019). As a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, HIV specifically targets CD4 cells and integrates itself into host DNA via reverse transcription. Although the symptoms of HIV vary, the infection severely weakens the immune system, leaving an infected individual vulnerable to a plethora of infections and complications. AIDS is a later, more advanced stage of HIV infection, which occurs when HIV positive individuals develop “long term clinical manifestations” (cancers, infections). In 2015, the Center for Disease Control stated that those who partake in “risky behaviors” that include having unprotected sex and sharing needles/syringes, or live in communities where many people have HIV infection, are more likely to be at risk for infection themselves. 

Recent research also shows that women are more disproportionately impacted by HIV infections and are typically infected at “rates twice that of young men”. In 2017, it was found that more than 7,000 young women (15-24 years) became HIV positive and that 1 out 5 HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa impacted young women. In America, 57% of HIV positive individuals were African American women, 21% were white women, and 18% were Latina women. As a public health issue, with undeniable links to politics, socioeconomics, power, and culture, HIV continues to disproportionately affect millions around the world, especially disenfranchised women. However, despite its threatening global presence, discrepancies between public health and biomedical research methods have prevented a thorough understanding of why this group is severely disadvantaged when it comes to HIV infection and transmission.

As a serious public health issue, HIV/AIDS has become a social and cultural phenomenon that is undoubtedly linked to social constructs like power, gender, socioeconomics, race, and politics. However, discrepancies between public health initiatives and biomedical research have prevented a thorough understanding of why certain groups are most at-risk, despite numerous preventative methods. Though disenfranchised women are not part of the traditional risk groups (white men, white, gay men) associated with HIV/AIDS in the U.S., their experience of the disease must be evaluated, in order to further understand and potentially reassess who should be considered high-risk. The relationship between HIV/AIDS and stigma must also be considered when analyzing the disease experiences of such a rapidly infected demographic. 

Although advances in biomedical research and technology has helped us better understand the scientific technicalities of diseases like HIV/AIDS, there are still significant gaps in HIV/AIDS research that can only be filled by humanities-based frameworks. Consequently,  combining biomedical research and the perspectives of social sciences like Anthropology and Sociology, will allow for a better understanding of HIV/AIDS, and how it affects, and is affected by an individual’s race, gender, and class. 

Richardson, E. T., Collins, S. E., Kung, T., Jones, J. H., Hoan Tram, K., Boggiano, V. L., Bekker, L. G., & Zolopa, A. R. (2014). Gender inequality and HIV transmission: a global analysis. Journal of the International AIDS Society, 17(1), 19035.

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