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Rate of women, children with AIDS soaring

Women almost never give AIDS to men, but men give it to women. And women pass it on to their babies. What is happening to women and children is frightening, according to AIDS experts who spoke to a Tampa Bay audience Friday. The rates of infection for women and children are rising rapidly, while their access to health care remains limited.

"I used to think that in this grand and glorious country, women and children came first," said Dr. James J. Oleske of Newark, N.J. "That's an absolute lie."

Although the public assumes that women with AIDS are drug addicts, a growing number of women contract the disease by having sex with an infected man.

"Half the (infected) women I take care of have never used drugs," Oleske told a meeting of the Bay Area Community AIDS Response.

Joyner Sims, AIDS program director for Florida, said 41 percent of Florida women with AIDS got it by having sex with a man, while 44 percent are drug addicts.

Yet many of the women who have sexual relationships with infected men are not being warned, Sims said. This is why: The law requires that doctors report the names of AIDS patients to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), which keeps them confidential. HRS workers counsel the patients and notify the patients' sex partners, unless the patients want to do it themselves.

But the law doesn't require doctors to report the names of those infected with the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), even though they are contagious.

A proposal to require reporting of infections was killed in the Legislature last year after gay rights and civil liberties groups objected. A compromise made reporting voluntary.

This year, Sims said, HRS asked for another try at the reporting bill. But the governor didn't put it on his priority list, according to Sims, because the state can't afford to hire more notifiers.

Rep. Frances "Chance" Irvine, R-Orange Park, has introduced a bill for mandatory HIV reporting similar to the one that failed last year.

"Women are very vulnerable," she said. "If their husband is putting them at risk, they should know it."

Meanwhile, the gender gap widens in transmission of the virus.

Most men contract AIDS by having sex with another man or by injecting illegal drugs with a contaminated needle. Only 2 percent nationally and 10 percent in Florida became infected through sex with a woman, according to Sims' data.

Although less than 10 percent of AIDS patients nationwide are women, in Florida it's almost 15 percent - about 1,500 of just over 10,000 patients. (No one knows how many Floridians are infected with HIV, but the upper estimate is 200,000).

Recent announcements that the infection rate might be declining nationally were unfortunate, Sims said, because many people overlooked the fact that the South was an exception. Florida's infection rate continues upward, fueled by its exceptionally high rate of heterosexual transmission.

HRS' experience with notifying sex partners of AIDS patients is that one in three are found to be infected, he said.