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Women With AIDS Say They Are Invisible In AIDS Debate

April 20, 1991

BOSTON (AP) _ Doctor were sure Wendy Bennet-Adler, a 42-year-old grandmother, couldn’t have AIDS. But they also couldn’t figure out what was killing her.

″I had the virus and I didn’t know it,″ Bennet-Adler, a former intravenous drug user, said Friday before a crowd of 1,000 people, most of them women. ″We need a lot more of us to get up and do this so people will not pretend we don’t exist, because we do.″

Other people at the standing-room-only conference on women with AIDS came to the podium to complain they are being overlooked.

″Back in 1984, ’85, ’86, gay men were treated horribly,″ said Keri Duran, 28, a former heroin addict who has tested positive for the HIV virus, which causes AIDS. ″That pales in comparison with what women face.″

Of the 171,876 Americans diagnosed so far with AIDS, 16,805 were women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The agency projects AIDS will be among the top five causes of death for women between the ages of 25 and 44 by 1993 if current trends continue.

An estimated 1 million people, including 100,000 women, are HIV-positive.

But critics say AIDS treatment, testing, education and prevention programs are designed primarily for men.

″Being invisible in the epidemic has made it all too easy to ignore the risk,″ said Gloria Weissman, deputy chief of community research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Weissman studied 16,000 cases of women who had AIDS or who had sex with men who had the disease.

Even the method of protection recommended most is often beyond a woman’s control, Weissman said.

″From the beginning, the message has been that women should protect themselves. And how? By getting their partner to wear condoms.″

Women are so seldom accurately diagnosed with AIDS, their survival from the date of diagnosis averages from 15 weeks to six months, health officials said. ″The prevailing attitude about HIV and AIDS is that you’ve got a bunch of faggots and junkies, and who needs them anyway,″ Duran said.

Mary Esther Andrews doesn’t fit that mold. Besides being female, she is white, heterosexual and middle class.

″We are trapped in our homes, isolated by our economic status,″ said Andrews, who tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus in 1989, eight years after she apparently got it from a blood transfusion and five years after her symptoms were explained away by doctors.

″They never even looked for HIV because I’m not in the traditional risk group,″ she said.

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