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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 15:25 GMT

HIV positive women seek to influence services

Breastfeeding and HIV may be the main topic of the conference

More than a hundred women are attending a unique conference on Wednesday to highlight the particular problems faced by HIV positive women.

The Birmingham conference, entitled Positive Women's Agenda for Change, has been hailed as the first to gather so many positive women together and to concentrate on services and support available outside London.

Aids Special Report
The aim is to give the women a voice in the kind of services they receive.

Organisations taking part say there is more support available in London because of the concentration of HIV positive women there and people living in other areas can feel isolated.

They are hoping the conference will help these women to network more.

The number of UK women with HIV is increasing at a faster rate than the number of men, although men are still the most likely to have the virus.

Some 4,218 UK women are known to have HIV, according to latest figures, and 1,100 have died of Aids.

This compares to more than 11,000 men known to carry the virus.

Most women were infected through heterosexual sex.


The main talking point at the Birmingham conference is likely to be the controversy over whether women with HIV should be allowed to breastfeed their babies.

This follows a court ruling earlier this year that a child born to an HIV-positive mother should be tested for HIV.

The child's parents have refused to comply, saying they fear that if the test is negative, her mother will not be barred from breastfeeding her.

Scientists say there is a risk of up to 20% of a mother transmitting HIV to a child through breastmilk.

Aids organisations are split on the issue. Denise McDowell, services manager of Manchester-based George HouseTrust, which is taking part in the conference, said: "Testing does not save a life. Anti-HIV treatment has helped many, but not all; breastfeeding does not necessarily transmit HIV.  

"But going to court does take away the liberties of the individual, and taking a baby into care away from (in this case) a loving two-parent family relationship is no help to anyone, least of all the child."

However, the organisation Positively Women, which is mainly staffed by HIV-positive women, is currently advising women against breastfeeding.

But it is open to change and recognises that the decision is a difficult one which women need support and information to make.

Other issues being covered by the conference include the isolation of HIV-positive drug users in prison, access to a sympathetic GP, caring for children living with or affected by HIV, negotiating safer sex and anti-HIV drugs.


Aids organisations say research on anti-HIV drugs is going ahead at such a fast pace that information on the specific effects on women is often not available.

Positively Women says it receives a lot of calls about the effect of the drugs on unborn babies. A recent piece of research suggested AZT slightly increased the risk of birth defects.

"The problem is that the research is going at such a speed and people are willing to try new treatments when not all is known about their effects," said a spokeswoman.

She added that increasing HIV monitoring at ante-natal clinics meant possible problems would be picked up sooner.

The George House Trust said women were also worried about the side effects of treatments.

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