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Volume 91, Issue 20
Wednesday, October 1, 1997
When women test POSITIVE
Beth Hollingsworth offers support and personal experiences for women living with HIV and AIDS.
By Karena Walter
When Louise suffered from a bad case of the flu in November 1989, her doctor took some of the 22-year-old's blood. He ran many tests, including one which would determine if there was the remote chance she had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Louise called him for the results but her diagnosis was completely unexpected.
"He said everything came out negative except for that test. I said, 'Oh my God.' I dropped the phone and just screamed bloody murder. I was alone in the afternoon, my baby was sleeping and I just cried. This big yell within me just came out. I was petrified."
Like most women, Louise knew very little about the virus other than people were dying from it. At the time, AIDS was known mostly as a gay man's disease and there was scant information about a woman's chances of being infected.
But recently, statistics are revealing a rapid change in the make up of HIV and AIDS cases and the number of Canadian women contracting HIV has risen dramatically over the past few years. Health Canada reports that 13.2 per cent of all AIDS cases this year are among women. This has increased from 9.5 per cent in 1996. In fact, before 1993, the ratio of females to males with the virus was one female for every 15 males. By June of this year the ratio was one to seven.
Biologically, it is easier for women to become infected by men than vice-versa. The Canadian AIDS Society reports studies have found male to female transmission is two to four times greater than female to male transmission.
But there are social reasons why women are more vulnerable as well. Beth Hollingsworth, a support and outreach coordinator for Voices of Positive Women, a Toronto support service for women living with HIV and AIDS, says a power imbalance between men and women contributes to lack of safety in sexual relationships as many women have difficulty negotiating safer sex with an abusive partner. "Many people think that as long as they are in a relationship they don't have to wear condoms or practice safer sex, but while they may be faithful to their partner, their partner isn't necessarily being faithful to them and some women aren't even able to have that discussion."
Abby Robinson, coordinator of the women's HIV resource network of the AIDS Committee of London, hears a lot of women say they know prevention methods but don't know how to put them into practice. "You can go in and give them information but if you don't talk about self-esteem and control and all these power differences, you're missing the beat," Robinson says. "How do we say I care about myself enough and I care about you enough that I need you to use this condom or I need you to use this new needle?" Robinson is currently working on a project to develop tools and strategies for women to help them avoid getting HIV.
While more women are becoming infected, many of them are young adults or teenagers. About 5,000 Canadians are infected each year and over half of these are younger than 25. The Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development reports that 70 per cent of all new infections in women are among 15 to 24-year-olds.
"I tested positive in '93 and it had never ever crossed my mind that I could have HIV," says Hollingsworth. "My risky behaviour was from the time I was 17 to 22 you know, when you're young and you're invincible and nothing can ever happen to you. When I became sexually active I went on the birth control pill and I thought I had my bases covered. I thought I was being responsible."
The HIV virus is transmitted by an infected person through four types of fluids: blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk through an entry point into the bloodstream.
For women, the symptoms of HIV are not as obvious as those of men, which means they put off testing longer, Hollingsworth said. Hormone changes, abnormal pap smears, cervical changes, irregular menstrual cycle, swollen glands, chronic fatigue and chronic yeast infections are some common symptoms. "Women have a history of not being tested and therefore their disease goes undetected for a very long time. Years go by, they get sick, they get rushed into emergency with PCP pneumonia and they don't come out." There seems to be a shorter survival rate because their diagnoses is usually later in the disease progression, she says.
Hollingsworth said the women she meets often have had a few monogamous relationships in which they thought their partners were monogamous as well. Now 31 and a first-year Western student, Louise believes she contracted the disease from her boyfriend, whom she shared needles with. Another woman, Judy, contracted the disease from her ex-husband when she was 21. Among women who have contracted AIDS, 63 per cent are due to heterosexual contact, 17 per cent due to injection drug use and the remainder due to receipt of blood, blood products or undetermined factors.
"Anybody can get it," Louise says. "There are no chosen people on the planet to get it. You don't know where anybody else has been and that's OK if that's what they want to do but just protect yourself. If all I had to do back then was wear a goddamn rubber and clean my needle a certain way, I would have, but I didn't know anything about that. Nothing."
Women who have contracted AIDS not only have to deal with raising families and juggling careers, but with the stigma that still exists in society as well. When Louise's in-laws found out she tested positive, it was the beginning of the end for her marriage. "Suddenly the red carpet that had been rolled out for me was pulled right from under my feet. Everything was taken away. No more family reunions. No more family barbecues. No more anything with the family."
Judy also found her job became stressful when some people did not want to work with her when they suspected she may have HIV. But she says society's attitudes have improved since she and her first husband were diagnosed over a decade ago. "Eleven years ago, doctors didn't want to touch us. We were kicked out of dentists' offices. We basically found no treatment. We had to travel a good hour and a half to get a doctor to touch us." Now, however, some nurses will draw blood from her without wearing gloves.
One year ago the AIDS Committee of London serviced three women. Today there are 40 women aged 21 to 72 using the services, 19 of whom are HIV positive.
Robinson runs a monthly social group for women which will soon be meeting twice a month. The gathering acts as a way for women to connect with women, something Robinson says she is seeing more and more of. "If anything, I'm seeing over the last year women working together for women. Infected and affected women are saying, more or less, 'this is happening and now that I know this is happening I want to figure out any way possible that I can help.' And you can see these women banding together."
For Louise, a new attitude has developed since she was told she was HIV positive. "If a person cannot accept me for me then that is their loss. Because I'm a good person and if they're going to not let me into their lives because of their ignorance it's totally their loss, not mine. I have a lot of people in my life and one weed out of my garden is just fine by me."
When Judy found out she was HIV positive she was told she had six months to live. That was 11 years ago and she is still going strong. "It doesn't mean you have to shrivel up and die. The world doesn't stop. It continues and if you become knowledgeable enough, you can continue too."
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Copyright © The Gazette 1997