The incidence of AIDS among District women has risen sharply in recent years, and women now account for roughly one-third of the city's new AIDS cases, local health officials said yesterday.
Ninety-six percent of those women are African American or Latino, officials said at a conference yesterday. And many are "nice girls" often presumed to be safe from the deadly disease, said Felicia B. Lynch, director of health and support services for the D.C. Department of Health's HIV/AIDS Administration.
Officials said the trend is alarming and preventable.
The most effective way of slowing the female AIDS rate is "getting women to empower themselves, to take care of themselves, to go get tested," Lynch said. Taking control means saying no to sex, using condoms and taking medication as prescribed if a test turns up positive, she said.
Guy Weston, the HIV/AIDS office's director of research, said the proportion of women with AIDS in the District has increased consistently in two decades. In 1981, the first year in which cases were documented, women accounted for 7.2 percent of adult AIDS cases in the District. That proportion rose to 11 percent in 1990, and last year, women represented 33 percent of the city's new AIDS cases.
The number of female adolescents and young women with the disease also appears to be rising, with those in the 13-to-24 age group accounting for 6.5 percent of recent AIDS cases, Weston said. There also is anecdotal evidence that more senior citizens are developing AIDS, he said.
The percentage of men has decreased significantly in the new AIDS cases reported in the District. Weston attributed that trend to the sharper focus on men in prevention and care programs and less research on how the human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS affects women.
Last year, 616 new adult AIDS cases were reported in the District, 204 of them among women, Weston said. The total number of D.C. residents 13 or older living with AIDS is 13,899. Twenty-four percent, or 3,336, are girls or women.
Veronica Jenkins, a physician at Family and Medical Counseling Services in Southeast Washington, said that she sees three to four new AIDS patients each day and that most are women.
"We have to educate ourselves and everyone around us," Jenkins told 110 female health care workers and service providers at the first local "Women and Girls Summit" on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Jenkins and other speakers at the day-long workshop, held at the Marriott Metro Center Hotel, stressed that girls and women are at much greater risk of contracting HIV than are men and need to be even more cautious. HIV is transmitted through body fluids, and women are more susceptible through sexual contact, the speakers said.
Women do not display symptoms of AIDS until a later stage in the disease, meaning that preventing HIV from developing into AIDS -- and controlling the disease -- is more difficult, according to the summit's speakers.
Weston said women often have misperceptions about the risk of contracting HIV. One myth is that women who contract the virus through sexual intercourse have a bisexual partner, he said. Instead, he said, urban girls and women most often are infected when they have sex with a man who is an intravenous drug user or has had contact with one.
Washington, New York and other major cities have a higher incidence of intravenous drug use and higher rates of female AIDS patients than less urban areas, he said. For example, in 2000, the AIDS rate in the District was 88 per 100,000 women, while in Maryland it was 20 and in Virginia, 7.3. The overall U.S. rate was 8.7.
The city's HIV/AIDS office regularly offers free testing at community events. The confidential tests consist of cotton swab saliva samples taken by a health care worker and sent to a lab for analysis.
Counselors are available 24 hours a day at an anonymous hotline, 202-332-AIDS (2437). For a list of HIV testing sites and other services, go to www.dc.gov and click on "Health Services," then "HIV/AIDS."