More than two-thirds of new HIV infections among women are occurring among women under 25, creating a "silent" AIDS epidemic among teens, a United Nations agency report said this week.
Dr. Karen Hein, professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and spokeswoman for the U.N. Development Program, said half the 14 million people now infected with HIV were infected between age 15 and 24 and about half of the 6,000 new infections each day are among young women."Teenage girls are the leading edge of the next wave of the HIV epidemic," said Hein, blaming the problem on social, economic and anatomical factors that make teen women especially vulnerable to AIDS.
Hein said teenage girls have less mature bodies, less capable of fending off sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS and gonorrhea. One reason is that their vaginal linings are thinner than those of mature women, making it easier for a virus like HIV to permeate the young woman's body, she said.
Economic and cultural factors also put young women at special risk, she said. In many societies, teen girls are forced into marriages or into having sex with relatives or others. Even married women face risk because many men are promiscuous and "bring HIV home," Hein said.
Teen experimentation with sex is another factor, especially in places where condoms are unavailable, Hein said, adding that the world recession forces many girls into "survival sex in exchange for food, clothing or shelter."
A new UNDP report, based on data from Zaire, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Uganda, Rwanda and 31 European countries, said sexually active women in their 20s now have higher rates of HIV infection than older women or young men. About 70 percent of the 3,000 women a day who are infected with HIV and the 500 who die of AIDS each day are between 15 and 25.
"Despite the increasing evidence of the susceptibility of young women to HIV infection, little international attention has yet been given to them," said Elizabeth Reid, director of the agency's HIV and Development Program. "Strategies to protect (young women) from infection will have to involve men as well as women."