November 28, 2005
While gay men continue to make up more than half of HIV diagnoses in Montana, state health officers have seen an increase in cases among women in recent years. At the Yellowstone City-County Health Department, 21 of 100 HIV-positive patients are women. At Yellowstone AIDS Project, 13 of 60 clients are women. Most of the women were infected through sex with their boyfriends or husbands.
Part of the problem is that many women do not consider themselves at risk for the disease, said Kathy Hall, a physician's assistant and HIV specialist for the health department's Deering Community Health Center. Debbie Hedrick, the department's director of Community Health Services, agreed. "They [women] do not think of themselves at risk because all they are doing is having unprotected sex with men. [They think], 'I'm a young, heterosexual women. I'm not at risk for HIV," Hedrick noted.
At the Deering center, at least four of Hall's clients contracted HIV from men "on the down low," or men who have sex with men outside of their heterosexual relationship but do not identify themselves as gay or bisexual. In the Billings area, this accounts for an increasing number of female cases.
Hedrick said it is important to educate everyone on how HIV is transmitted, and it is critical to teach women how to protect themselves. At the beginning of every relationship, women and men should insist on HIV tests for themselves and their partners, Hall concurred.
"You have the right to say to somebody, 'I will not have sex with you if we don't have safe sex. This is my body, and I am asking and demanding we use protection," said Hall.