UNAIDS Highlights Need to Focus HIV Efforts on Women, Girls


Globally, 18.6 million women and girls were living with HIV in 2015.

pediatrics, infectious disease, HIV/AIDS, human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, OBGYN, women’s health

Despite major advances in HIV diagnostics and treatment, the virus has heavy prevalence around the globe. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) is putting an especially strong focus on women and girls, as a new report addresses the urgent need.

In 2015, 18.6 million women and girls around the world were living with HIV, according to the report. During that year, there were 1 million new HIV cases and 470,000 AIDS-related deaths—all in females.

“Women are leading change in increasing demand for and access to HIV and health services,” Michel Sidibé, (picture) executive director of UNAIDS, said in a news release. “This movement needs to grow to allow families to thrive, societies to flourish, and economies to progress.”

Women are more susceptible to HIV than men to start off with. For one, the virus is able to make its way through the cells of the vaginal lining, which has a larger surface area than the penis. HIV also has more time exposed to mucosal, where some cells that can assist the virus are located. In addition, there’s higher level of the virus in semen compared to vaginal fluids.

Adolescent girls are even more likely to contract the virus because the mucosa in the immature cervix is highly vulnerable to HIV. Some countries around the world have additional burdens that contribute to the high HIV rate in young girls. The report found that only 30% of countries have equal amounts of boys and girls going to upper secondary school. In western and central Africa, only one-third of young women ages 15 to 24 said that they have a final say in their own healthcare.

“Every girl should have the opportunity to stay in school, every young woman should have the decision-making power over her own sexual and reproductive health and all women and girls should be able to protect themselves against HIV,” Sidibé continued.

Domestic and sexual abuse also puts women at risk for HIV. Women who experience such by an intimate partner are up to 50% more likely to become infected.

On a positive note, more women are on antiretroviral therapy than men (52% vs. 41%), the report noted. This has resulted in a decreasing number of AIDS-related deaths since 2010 and a bigger drop has been observed in woman (33% vs. 15% decrease).

Integrated health services need to be ramped up, especially in poverty-stricken countries. The UNAIDS report says that sexual and reproductive health services increase access to HIV-related illnesses treatment, and can help with screening and prevention. Having post-rape care services accessible is also important to preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as unintended pregnancies and psychological trauma. By making such services more easily available to women and girls around the world, they can feel empowered and able to take control of their own health rights.

The 2016 United Nations Political Declaration on Ending AIDS detailed goals for the future of HIV/AIDS. Among other targeted groups, a few goals for women and girls include:

  • Reach all women, adolescent girls, and key populations with HIV prevention services by 2020
  • Reduce HIV infections per year from 390,000 to below 100,000 in young women 15 to 24
  • Eliminate gender inequalities and gender-based abuse and violence

Whether biological, structural, or behavioral, there are various factors that can disproportionately impact women and girls when it comes to HIV risk—which is why women and girls need more support than ever.

“Women’s rights are human rights—no exceptions,” Sidibé said.

The report, “When Woman Lead, Changes Happen,” news release, and headshot were provided by UNAIDS.

Related Coverage:

Certain Genital Bacteria Trigger Risk of HIV

Trump Policies Could Erase Gains in HIV Epidemic

Vaginal Ring Lowers HIV Risk Without Interfering with Sexual Intercourse

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