For every woman who has AIDS, there are five men with the disease. But the gender gap is rapidly closing.
According to the AIDS Policy Center for Children, Youth and Families in Washington, D.C., the proportion of new AIDS cases attributed to women tripled from 7% in 1985 to 23% in 1998.
Making matters worse, little research has been done on women with AIDS, who don't respond to treatment as well or live as long as men with the virus, says Gail Wyatt, professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School.
That's why she and her colleagues launched a study five years ago with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Their study tracks 500 women--some with HIV and some without--to see how this disease affects a woman's psychology, sexuality and behavior over time.
The American Psychological Assn. Journal will devote its summer issue, which is due out Friday, to the findings of the first phase of this study.
"Considering the direction the disease is going, this is a very important study," says David Harvey, executive director of the AIDS Policy Center. "HIV is transmitted through behaviors, and we have a paucity of scientific information about what triggers those behaviors."
Dr. Judith Auerbach, preventive science coordinator for the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health, concurs.
"The study is delving into the complex relationship among a variety of psycho-social variables in an ethnically diverse sampling. By doing so we expect it will help us better understand HIV risk behaviors, the disease course in women, and how to both prevent HIV transmission and improve the quality of life for infected women."
Wyatt also hopes her study will help change the public's perception of who gets AIDS. She says the public and researchers often don't hear about patients other than those who are treated at community clinics.
"We don't hear from private physicians treating upper-income patients because they are totally protected," says Wyatt, who looked to both public clinics and private doctors when recruiting participants for her study.
As such, the HIV-positive group in the study includes doctors, lawyers, media personalities and millionaires.
"We have some very visible people who had the courage to come forward and contribute to a cause they felt was important," says Wyatt.
She also hopes that getting the word out will encourage more women to get tested. The upside of getting tested, she says, is that with early intervention and good care, AIDS is becoming a chronic disease people can manage and live with.
The ongoing study, known as the Women and Family Project, is still looking for participants who are both HIV-negative and HIV-positive.
For more information on the ongoing study, call (310) 794-9929.