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Women and HIV/AIDS

Women are one of the fastest growing populations being infected with HIV. This is especially true of those women who use injection drugs , and whose sexual partners are at a higher risk for HIV. The increasing number of women who are HIV positive is a concern as they can possibly transmit it to their infants.

Why are women at risk for HIV/AIDS?

  • Women are biologically 2 - 4 times at greater risk for male-to female-transmission than female-to-female transmission.
  • This is partly because semen has a higher concentration of HIV than vaginal fluid, but also because there is usually a greater amount of semen than vaginal fluid during the act of sex.
  • Women are also exposed for a longer period of time to the semen once it has been ejaculated in the vagina (or anus) than the male penis is exposed to the vaginal fluid.
  • If there is a break in the tissue of the vagina or anus, such as with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), this has been shown to increase the risk of transmission if the female has been exposed to HIV. Most women do not have any symptoms and do not know they have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) .
  • In younger women (15-24 years), the cervix has not yet developed into a more protective type of tissue, so there is more risk of infection being able to develop.
  • There is also economic and physical power imbalance between men and women that leads to a lack of safety in sexual relationships. This makes negotiating the use of a  condom difficult.

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How does HIV/AIDS affect pregnancy and breastfeeding?

HIV positive women can pass the virus to their infant while still pregnant, during birth, or during breastfeeding.

  • There is about a 1 in 4 chance of an HIV positive mother passing it on to the baby before or during birth.
  • Testing is available/offered for women during pregnancy  to try to reduce the transmission of the virus to the infant. The test will NOT be done unless you give your consent.
  • If you find that you are negative, you can relax and enjoy your pregnancy.
  • If you are positive, there is medication you can take to greatly reduce the possibility of passing the HIV on to your baby.
  • HIV positive women in Canada are encouraged to use formula and not breastfeed to lower the risk of passing the HIV to the infant through breast milk.
  • If you are positive for HIV you should not mix breastfeeding with formula. The formula could irritate your baby's stomach, which makes it easier for the HIV to be passed to your baby.

Talk to your doctor, health care provider or local  Sexual Health Clinic for more information.

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