Co-authored by Jamie Felzer
Just how much can the events of a traumatic childhood affect the likelihood of contracting HIV or other serious diseases in later life? Unfortunately, recent research shows that the effect can be profound, especially for women.The silver lining may be in our ability to reduce later HIV transmission by providing better intervention services post-trauma.
Childhood Trauma, Women and HIV/AIDS
In ways both surprising and predictable, it seems that even very early childhood trauma can be firmly linked to high risk behaviors and a higher risk of contracting HIV. And with AIDS now reported by the US Department of Heath & Human Services as the leading cause of death for African-American women between the ages of 25-34 (and the perhaps even more sobering H&HS assessment that African-American women are a staggering 21 times more likely to die from AIDS compared to non-Hispanic white women), this crisis has a particular impact on women of color.
The obvious conclusion is that those subjected to childhood trauma are more likely to engage in risky behavior in an attempt to relieve some of the chronic stress that often accompanies such experiences. Drug use, unprotected sex, heavy drinking and other accompanying behaviors can all seem like appropriate responses to mental and emotional stress, but that stress can also inhibit one’s ability to make safe choices in this context. This naturally leads to an increased risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases and blood-borne pathogens. Factor in the simple biological reasons why women may be at an elevated risk of contracting HIV through any one encounter, and it becomes clear that many at-risk young women are not receiving adequate education on how to protect themselves against this threat.
Many young women with a history of trauma and elevated lifetime stress from sexual assault, violence or any of the myriad stressors that accompany low socioeconomic status may be inadvertently putting themselves at greater risk for contracting HIV and AIDS. As mentioned, these risks can commonly come from unsafe sex and the abuse of unknown drugs, potentially with non-sterile needles. Without a strong support system to help them adequately process the short and long-term effects of trauma, many young women end up developing symptoms of chronic anxiety and depression, conditions that can alter behavior and even ultimately lead to demonstrated higher rates of mortality. That these conditions also often co-exist with other health issues linked to lower socioeconomic status such as obesity and heart disease serves to further compound this risk. Stress has even been shown to speed the progression of the AIDS virus, making the disease itself more deadly.
And with a full 1/3 of the female population having reported some form of sexual assault or similar violent trauma, the sad reality is that the risks for contracting HIV among young women are, if anything, growing. It seems that one way to attack the HIV pandemic is by improving prevention, as well as intervention, services, for women affected by such early trauma. It might be a way to kill two, or even more, birds with one stone.