Women’s HIV risk higher than previously thought

Women who have unsafe sex are at greater risk of contracting HIV, says scientists

Women who have unsafe sex could be at a greater risk of contracting HIV than originally thought, following tests that showed the virus could penetrate through healthy vaginal tissue.

Experts previously thought the infection could only get through already damaged skin in the vagina, but now researchers in the US say the HIV virus can attack a healthy barrier of skin within hours.

Scientists believed the transmission of the virus was more likely to occur through cuts or sores in the vaginal tract when the infection could break through thinner layers of skin.

Now, US-based researchers say HIV can, in fact, move quickly between skin cells, just before they are about to be shed and are more weak.

The news has underpinned the message from UK HIV charities that women should avoid unprotected sex, unless they know their partner’s sexual history.

Lead researcher Professor Thomas Hope said: ‘This is an important and unexpected result – we have a new understanding of how HIV can invade the female vaginal tract.’

He added: ‘We urgently need new prevention strategies or therapeutics to block the entry of HIV through a woman’s genital skin.’

Lisa Power, of the Terrence Higgins Trust, commented on the news: ‘This will help in developing better prevention mechanisms – but until then, it’s more clear than ever that a condom is a vital part of safer sex.’

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