Friday, August 18, 2017

Women increasingly among those at risk for HIV/AIDS

A new group is increasingly at risk for contracting HIV in Myanmar: women.

Even as the number of people contracting HIV has begun to decline, the virus’ prevalence is growing among women, according to health experts.

Women of reproductive age – from 15 to 45 years old – are now making up a greater proportion of the 210,000 people living HIV infections, Dr Myo Thant, a consultant with the National AIDS Program, said during a December 3 seminar. By contrast, the number of men living with the disease has been declining for the last 15 years.

“The HIV infection rate is still higher among men than women, but we’ve found that the number of women living with HIV has gone up gradually,” he said.

Women now make up more 40 percent of the people living with HIV/AIDS, he said. The jump is a sharp one – at the outset of Myanmar’s HIV epidemic nearly two decades ago, the number of women with the immune disease was closer to 1pc.

Dr Htin Aung Saw from Waibagi Hospital said that there has been in uptick in women seeking antiretroviral therapy (ART) within the last decade and a half as well.

“The number of women who are now living with HIV is approaching the number of men with HIV,” he said. “Previously, very few women had HIV. But women whose partners use injection drugs or have sex with high risk groups [sex workers, injection drug users, or men who have sex with men] contracted the disease mostly via sexual transmission.”

According to a UNAIDS report, women of reproductive age are generally considered a low-risk group, so outreach and education programs are rarely targeted at them. Their male partners however often delay testing and treatment and are less likely than women to disclose an HIV-positive status.

Dr Htin Aung Saw said the data may also be skewed by the fact that women, and especially those who are pregnant, are more inclined to get tested for HIV.

To prevent virus from spreading to children from their mothers, the Ministry of Health has a targeted program providing pregnant women with free tests and ART. The program covers 278 of the country’s 330 townships.

Last year, over 550,000 pregnant women were tested for HIV, more than a two-fold increase from 2010 when 250,000 pregnant women were tested.

Treatment still remains a barrier however, with only one out of every three people living with the disease receiving ART, according to the UN Development Program.

“HIV-positive women should start taking ART early so as not to infect to the child,” said Dr Myo Thant. “For the last four years, we weren’t able to provide ART to all patients, but now we can.”

The Ministry of Health is currently drafting the next National Strategic Plan on HIV for 2016 to 2020. Targets include ensuring 90pc of people living with HIV receive prevention services, know their status, know their treatment options and receive ARTs without stigma.