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International News
HIV Risk Greater for Young African Brides

March 2, 2004

Young married African women are becoming HIV-infected at higher rates than unmarried girls of similar ages in the same areas, UN officials said Saturday during the closing of the International Conference on Women and Infectious Diseases in Atlanta. The husbands tended to be both much older than their brides and more frequently HIV-positive -- many infected before marriage -- than the boyfriends of young sexually active unmarried women, officials said.

UN officials said the findings from studies conducted in Kisumu, Kenya, and Ndola, Zambia, pointed to an insufficiency in abstinence-focused prevention programs as the main method of HIV prevention, because they failed to take into account the risk of HIV transmission in marriage.

It is not necessarily true, as many believe, that being married and faithful protects these young women from HIV, said Dr. Paul DeLay, a UNAIDS official. In many parts of the world, a married woman who is faithful runs the highest risk of exposure to HIV, said DeLay, if she has "a philandering husband."

Dr. Catherine Hankins, chief UNAIDS scientific advisor, speaking from the agency's Geneva headquarters, said, "it's the first time we have ever seen" differences in HIV infection rates between married and sexually active single women ages 15-19. "Consistently around the world, girls who marry at or after age 20 have partners closer in age to them than girls who marry younger than that," she said.

"The striking finding here is that among 15-to-19-year-old girls who are sexually active in these two settings, the fact of being married carries significantly higher risk -- in part because of the increased age differential between spouses and in part because condom use in marriage has not been promoted," said Hankins. "Common HIV/AIDS protection messages are often inappropriate for married adolescents who seem to have been a forgotten population."

Experts have long known that teenage women are more vulnerable to acquiring HIV infection because cells in the girls' cervices are biologically more susceptible.

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Excerpted from:
New York Times
02.29.04; Lawrence K. Altman

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