California: HIV Rate High Among Women

In the wake of a new law requiring that doctors and labs report cases of HIV -- not just AIDS -- a surprising number of women are among those testing HIV-positive in California's South Valley counties. Not including infected prison inmates, seven women and six men tested positive in Kings County. In Tulare County, 18 of 72 cases of HIV reported were those of women. That number is small, but with statistics usually dominated by men, it is surprising, said Roberta Torres, Tulare County's HIV/AIDS surveillance coordinator.

According to the state Office of AIDS, women represented 14.3 percent of HIV-positive cases reported since the law went into effect in July. In Tulare and Kings counties, women make up 25 percent and 53 percent, respectively, of the new cases. Seven years ago, women made up 11 percent of people with HIV/AIDS in Tulare County. Today, that percentage has jumped to 18 percent, Torres said. Countywide, about 340 people have been infected since the early 1980s.

Cultural differences may be responsible for some of the rise. Often it is the man who decides whether a condom is used, said Roberto Bustos, a Tulare County education specialist. "Women are still not part of the negotiation process... in protecting themselves," he said.

The scenario happens even in marriages, said Toni Harrison, a caseworker for the Living Room, a Fresno-based HIV/AIDS service organization. If a wife suspects her husband is cheating on her and fears contracting HIV, she will sometimes still stay quiet, Bustos said. He has heard stories about women whose fears led them to question their husbands' or boyfriends' sexual habits, and some were beaten for it, he said.

Three of Tulare's HIV cases are children younger than 13. All contracted the virus from their mothers. A campaign to educate pregnant women covers almost every interaction they would have with county government. In county-run health clinics and the Women, Infants and Children assistance program, professionals talk to women about the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies.

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