Reducing late-stage HIV diagnosis among women

On this National Day of Women Living with HIV (9 March) Dr Andrew Thompson from InstantScripts telehealth service is urging Australian women to get tested for HIV.

This comes as reports suggest that an alarming proportion of cases are diagnosed late.

Specifically, according to the Kirby Institute, NSW, among heterosexual Australians with HIV, 45% of women and 66% of over-50s women are diagnosed late.

“HIV can be transmitted through unprotected sex, or when sharing or using contaminated drug injecting equipment. It can also be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding,” reminds Dr Thompson.

Dr Thompson says that women may “not prioritise testing as there is a perception that HIV is not prevalent among heterosexual couples or women”.

“In fact, 80% of women with HIV did not see themselves as being at risk prior to diagnosis,” he says. “While women aren’t a high-risk group, this doesn’t mean the risk isn’t there.”

Dr Thompson says that “early diagnosis and treatment can result in a better quality of life and reduce one’s mortality rate to enable them to continue living a full life and keep their immune systems as healthy as possible”.

Actions to reduce late-stage diagnosis 

Dr Thompson suggests the following four actions that women can take to reduce late-stage diagnosis.

  1. Don’t wait to get tested and seek regular testing if you’re at greater risk. “If you are sexually active, it’s important to disregard common stereotypes about transmission and seek testing. Certain behaviours can put you more at risk than others, including multiple partners or being in a non-monogamous relationship. In those cases, it is wise to get tested every three months. HIV attacks the immune system and waiting too long to get tested can have a detrimental impact on one’s health.”
  2. Consider self-tests for privacy and reassurance. “With HIV self-tests recently approved in Australia, and becoming more readily available, it is even easier for women to seek discreet, private testing. Self-tests are available to purchase in Australia online or from select pharmacies in NSW, Victoria, ACT, WA and Tasmania, and generally cost around $25.”
  3. Use preventative medicines. “PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, can reduce HIV risk by 99 per cent, while PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis, reduces risk when it is taken up to 72 hours after exposure to HIV. The uptake of PrEP is very low among women, likely due to a lack of awareness and knowledge of the product. However, services such as HIVPrevent provides women with access to PrEP, in a supportive and discreet environment.”
  4. Understand the early symptoms of HIV. “Ultimately, knowledge and awareness are key to reducing HIV risk. It is important for women to be able to identify early warning signs of HIV, which can arise within two to four weeks of exposure and include flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat and fatigue. Mouth ulcers and swollen lymph nodes can also be symptoms of HIV.”
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