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Brenda's Journey

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Summer 1997

Brenda's Journey
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Women on the East Coast are becoming infected largely through IV-drug use; women on the West Coast are getting the disease primarily through sexual relations with infected men. Heterosexual contact is, in fact, the fastest-rising form of transmission for women everywhere.

At UCLA's Care Clinic, a pleasant area in the medical center where people with HIV and AIDS are treated, the patient population mirrors the national statistics. "The early cases were older women whose husbands had blood transfusions and contracted the virus that way," says Dr. Ronald T. Mitsuyasu, director of the UCLA Center for Clinical AIDS Research and Education and associate director for clinical programs of the UCLA AIDS Institute. "We're now seeing younger women who've contracted the virus sexually without the tainted blood connection." Increasingly, the women are married and don't know they're infected until they or someone in their family develops symptoms of AIDS.

Johiro has a number of such patients. One, the mother of a 5-year-old, probably got the virus from her husband but isn't sure. Another, an African American woman, is certain she was infected by her husband. He died of AIDS; her two children have tested negative. Two former patients, both Hispanic women in their 20s, have died. Another African American woman in her 40s with two grown children learned she had the virus after donating blood, but didn't obtain medical care for another year. Her husband passed away after suffering from some form of pneumonia. ("She has no idea what he died of," says Johiro.) Many of the Latinas, some in their early 20s, others as young as 15, report being infected by men who are gang members or abuse drugs or have been in prison, where risky sex is prevalent.

There are several reasons women of color are succumbing to the virus in such high numbers. A major factor is the traditional nature of gender roles in some ethnic communities, where women are expected to stay home and raise the children or, even if employed, do not earn a living wage. "Financial dependence limits the options that women have to say no to certain partners or to certain high-risk behaviors," notes Dr. Gail E. Wyatt, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate director of behavioral science education and prevention for the UCLA AIDS Institute.

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