Fri, Feb 04, 2005 - Page 2 News List

Women need to know of HIV threat

RAISING AWARENESS The number of women who have contracted HIV has risen significantly and the female population needs to be more aware of the risk

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

As AIDS spreads beyond traditional high risk groups in Taiwan, the country's women are increasingly exposed to HIV infection, health experts warned yesterday.

"The low rate of condom usage and lack of self-awareness on the part of women are root causes of the spread of AIDS among women," said Chang Shu-rong (張淑容), the chief executive of the Nurses AIDS Prevention Foundation at a conference held by the National Health Research Institute yesterday.

According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), while there was only one HIV-positive woman in 1987, the figure has now risen to 498, comprising 7 percent of the total HIV-infected population in Taiwan.

Experts said the figure underrated the infection rate because women in Taiwan have less access to HIV screening tests compared with men. In Taiwan, all adult males take the HIV screening test prior to their 22-month-long mandatory military service, yet the Department of Health launched free prenatal HIV screening test nationwide to identify women with AIDS only at the beginning of this year.

"The war against AIDS has long ignored gender issues. Women must be more conscious of the threats posed. They should realize they may even become infected through marital sex and they should be more active in seeking medical consultation," said Chang Chueh (張玨), associate professor at the women's research program of the National Taiwan University and a council member of the World Federation for Mental Health.

The World Health Organization says that women are more biologically susceptible to HIV infection than men. Transmission from men to women is two to four times more likely than from women to men. This is because women have a larger mucosal surface exposed during sexual intercourse, and semen has a much higher concentration of HIV than vaginal fluid.

The low rate of condom usage among married couples also renders women vulnerable to the virus, according to Chang.

"When most people think that it's only sex workers who bare the brunt of the disease, they actually neglect the 131 housewives infected with HIV," Chang said.

The CDC's statistics showed that the 131 married women accounts for 27.93 percent of the total number of infected women. "In Taiwan, it is not common for wives to ask their husbands to wear condoms. Wives rarely take an active role in sex," said Chang.

Another growing challenge is the increasing number of foreign brides who may bring the virus from their native country to Taiwan.

"In Taiwan, one out of every five newlyweds is married to a foreigner. The official figures show that foreign brides account for 17 percent of total newlyweds, while foreign grooms make up 2.3 percent of the total. No doubt the percentage will go higher," said Wu Show-ying (吳秀英), the secretary-general of the Taipei City's Department of Health.

As the foreign brides infected with HIV account for 42.4 percent of the total female HIV carriers in Taiwan, health officials drew up comprehensive screening plans in hopes of identifying cases before the virus spreads.

"We will inform matchmaker companies about the risk of the disease and encourage the married couples to get an HIV test," said Zhuang Ping (莊苹), chief of the nursing section at the Taipei City STD Control Center.

"Yet we also want to revise the law by which we deport all HIV positive foreigners. We will suggest the government respect the consensus of the couple. If the couple still want to maintain their marriage even if one is found to be HIV positive, they should be able remain in Taiwan," Zhuang Ping said.

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