Half of women diagnosed with HIV in Europe are already progressing towards AIDS

Pink ribbon - Red ribbon (isolated with clipping path) on symbolic color bow for HIV AIDS and breast, cervical cancer disease awareness
HIV "testing efforts" in Europe are "failing women", an expert has said. [Photo: Getty]

More than half (54%) of European women with HIV are only diagnosed when the infection is progressing towards AIDS, research suggests.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) damages cells in the immune system, preventing them from fighting off everyday infections, like colds.

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HIV is treatable if caught early, with 97% of those on therapy in the UK being “virally suppressed”, National AIDS Trust (NAT) statistics show. This means they cannot pass the virus on even if they have unprotected sex.

Left untreated, however, HIV can develop into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

This occurs when the immune system is so severely damaged by HIV, the patient is at risk of life-threatening infections and diseases.

Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organization for Europe found women made up one third of the 141,000 HIV diagnoses in the continent last year.

While most women are told they have the infection late, patients in their forties were up to four times more likely to have a delay in their diagnosis than their younger counterparts.

Late diagnosis was defined as a specific immune cell count of less than 350 cells/mm³. Healthy levels are generally considered between 500 and 1,200 cells/mm³.

Overall, countries in central Europe had six times fewer diagnoses among women than men last year, while those in the EU and European Economic Area - like Iceland and Norway - had three times less.

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“We do not know why but it seems systems and testing efforts in Europe are failing women”, Dr Andrea Ammon, ECDC director, said.

TV medic Dr Ranj Singh previously claimed women are now more “sexually liberated”, while high divorce rates mean many have new partners in later life.

Having gone through the menopause, some also mistakenly believe they do not need to use condoms, he added.

In the UK alone, 103,800 people are thought to be living with HIV, NAT statistics show. Of these, one in 14 are unaware they carry the infection.

While AIDS’ exact prevalence is unclear, there were 428 “AIDS-related deaths” in England alone last year, according to the charity Avert.

How does HIV spread?

HIV spreads via certain bodily fluids, including those in the vagina, semen, blood and breast milk, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. It cannot be transmitted via tears, sweat, faeces or urine.

Unprotected vaginal or anal sex is the most common route of infection.

Anal sex may be particularly problematic due to the lining of the anus being more delicate than that of the vagina, according to Avert. This means it is more easily damaged, allowing the virus into the body.

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Blood-borne infections can come about by sharing needles, transfusions or even splashing blood in your eyes, the US Department of Veterans Affairs reports.

The virus can also pass from pregnant women to their babies, both in the womb and during labour. Once the infant is born, breast milk can also cause transmission.

HIV cannot be spread via insect bites, like mosquitoes.

What are the symptoms?

Around 80% of people infected with HIV develop flu-like symptoms two-to-six weeks later, according to the NHS.

These include fever, sore throat and a rash. Some also experience fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and muscle and joint pain.

Once this has passed, the infection may cause no further illness for years. During this time, the virus is still damaging the immune system.

It can take 10 years before the immune system is severely damaged enough to be diagnosed as AIDS.

This can trigger weight loss, chronic diarrhoea, night sweats, recurrent infections and life-threatening illnesses.

How to get tested for HIV

The NHS provides free HIV tests for everyone, however, eligibility for different tests varies.

They can be carried out at sexual health clinics and some GP surgeries. Concerned people can also request an at-home test.

Home sampling kits involve collecting a saliva or blood sample, which then gets sent off for testing. You will be contacted within a few days with your result.

Check if you are eligible for a home sampling kit here.

Alternatively, home testing kits provide results within minutes.

Blood tests are more accurate than saliva samples, with most giving a reliable result a month after infection, according to the NHS.

If collecting your own blood is not for you, clinics can take a sample. This may get sent off to a laboratory or provide an almost immediate result.

If any of the above come back positive, a second blood test confirms the diagnosis.

The NHS advises men who have sex with men get tested at least once a year, or every three months if they have casual intercourse or regularly change partners.

It also urges black African men and women to have a regular HIV test if they have unprotected sex with new or casual partners.

Find out more about HIV and AIDS on the NHS’ website.