amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

amfAR Co-Sponsors Women and HIV Clinical Conference in Dallas

May 22, 2008—“Women—particularly women of color—are the face of AIDS,” said amfAR’s acting director of public policy, Monica Ruiz, Ph.D., M.P.H., at an amfAR-co-sponsored continuing medical education conference aimed at tackling the challenges of treating women with HIV.

Addressing nearly 200 healthcare providers and HIV/AIDS advocates who work with HIV-positive women, Ruiz and dozens of conference speakers presented a series of sessions on the medical, social, and policy implications of caring for HIV-positive women. The Women and HIV International Clinical Conference, held in Dallas, April 27-30, offered participants a detailed picture of the latest thinking on treatment, care, and advocacy.

The power of stigma to undermine the treatment and care of HIV-positive women arose as a consistent theme throughout the conference. Victoria Cargill, M.D., of the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health, described the experience of women whose HIV status has led others to view them as somehow “tainted,” and has damaged their own self-perception to the point of driving them away from treatment and into isolation.

“The stepchild of stigma is depression,” said Dr. Cargill. “It affects everything.” She strongly advised healthcare providers to remain consistently involved with their patients and noted that support groups, doctors, family, and peers can be lifelines for HIV-positive women.

The burden of stigma is particularly heavy for women considering disclosing their HIV status, said Julie Barroso, Ph.D., of the Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina. Because HIV infection is often assumed to be associated with promiscuity and/or substance use, women may be reluctant to disclose their status to their community, friends, and loved ones. They may even keep the truth from their children, fearing loss of custody or that their children will face stigma as well.

Dr. Barroso offered healthcare providers a framework for helping patients handle disclosure. By encouraging them to carefully plan whom to tell about their status, how much to tell, and when to tell, the framework allows women to seek the support of family and friends and end the anxiety of living a double life.

Taking a close look at the impact of government policy on HIV prevention, Dr. Ruiz described amfAR’s advocacy work on a 2008 federal spending bill, which proposes allocating $113 million for abstinence-only sex education. This sort of expenditure, she said, siphons away resources from much-needed evidence-based programs that are proven effective, such as HIV prevention and comprehensive sexuality education for young women.

Other speakers at the Dallas conference, which was co-sponsored with the Texas/Oklahoma AIDS Education & Training Center, tackled topics ranging from the aging of the HIV-infected population in the time of Viagra, antiretroviral therapy in women, domestic violence, and opportunistic infections, to substance abuse, women’s inclusion in clinical trials, racial and ethnic disparities in treatment, drug resistance, and life planning strategies for prenatally infected adolescents.