Female IV Drug Users in Vancouver at Higher Risk for HIV Infection Than Males
Vancouver women who use intravenous drugs are becoming infected with HIV at a faster rate than male injection drug users in the area, according to a study published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Canadian Press reports. The findings are based on the Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study, which examines the health of drug users in the city's Downtown Eastside, the neighborhood with the highest prevalence of IV drug users in Canada (Branswell, Canadian Press, 4/1). The study enrolled 624 HIV-negative men and 315 HIV-negative women in May 1996. By March 2001, 16.6% of female participants and 11.7% of male participants had contracted HIV, indicating that the HIV infection rate among female IV drug users is approximately 40% higher than that of their male counterparts. The study also found that aboriginal women who use IV drugs have notably high rates of HIV infection (Matas, Globe and Mail, 4/2). The study is the first to show a "sustained" trend toward higher HIV infection rates among female IV drug users.
Needles and Power
The study authors say that the higher rate of HIV infection among women can be attributed to the "power relationships" between men and women who use IV drugs. Many women who inject drugs share needles with their sex partners or agree to use a needle that their partner has used first because their partner "holds the money and buys the drugs," the researchers say (Canadian Press, 4/1). Lead study author Dr. Patricia Spittal said, "Negotiating safe needle use is like negotiating safe condom use. It's about trust. And sometimes ... in different kinds of relationships, it's very emotionally difficult for women to have control over safe needle and safe sex" (Branswell, Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press, 4/2). Study co-author Dr. Martin Schechter added that women are more likely to need help injecting drugs than men and that "the person who needs help injecting will [often] be second on the needle." Spittal said that "safe injection sites" and more drug treatment options for women would help stem the spread of disease through shared needles. However, Schechter said that solutions must be found for the larger societal problems of poverty, homelessness and abuse before drug use can be eradicated (Canadian Press, 4/1).