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Female-to-male AIDS link found.

Female-to-male AIDS link found

Scientists tracking AIDS have identified the suspect virus in vaginal and cervical secretions of some antibody-positive women and have found possible signs of it in red blood cells.

Though the discovery of the virus in genital secretions does not prove that women can infect men through heterosexual, contact, the virus's presence does provide a possible route for transmission, according to members of two research groups that made the findings independently of one another. Suspected female-to-male transmission is a rare occurrence in the United States -- as of March 10, only 41 of 18,070 reported U.S. AIDS cases were in men with heterosexual activity as the only possible exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDCe in Atlanta.)

Heterosexual transmission in both men and women "has been going up," says CDC epidemiologist Harold W. Jaffe, but it has remained at about 1 percent of the total U.S. AIDS Cases. It's "not likely" the percentage will increase in the next year or two, he says, "but beyond that who knows?"

Both studies were described in the March 8 LANCET. In one, Harvard and Boston University researchers collected cervical secretions from 14 women who had antibodies to the AIDS virus in their blood. Only three were free of signs of immune dysfunction, and all were in high-risk groups -- because of either intravenous drug abuse or sexual relations with intravenous drug users or bisexual men. Four of the women were prostitutes.

To make sure they were not looking at viruses from the blood, the researchers collected cervical secretions during the middle part of the menstrual cycle. They found the virus in four of the 14 women.

In the second study, University of California (UC) researchers in Berkeley and San Francisco grew low but measurable levels of virus from the vaginal and cervical secretions of four of eight antbody-positive women. One woman from whom the virus was cultured was menstruating at the time of collection; another initially cultured negative, but tested positive after self-induced orgasm.

Researchers from both groups note that despite the low virus levels and the relative infrequency of female-to-male transmissions, the studies indicate such transmission is plausible and emphasize the importance of safe sex practices. "Both men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, should be cautious about their choice of sexual partners and sexual technique," says Martin S. Hirsch of Harvard.

Says Constance B. Wofsy of UC San Francisco, "It confirms there is some virus there and therefore the vagina in a nonmenstruating woman could be a potential source of virus exposure to a man. But the factors that will allow a man to be susceptible to this small number of viral particles need to be determined. This just gives a little more emphasis to why people should use condoms."

Neither study identified the cellular residence of the virus, which is now known to infect not only white blood cells but also central nervous system cells (SN: 1/12/85, p. 22). In the February PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (Vol. 83), Morton J. Cowan of UCSF and hsi colleagues describe finding abnormally high levels of an enzyme in the red blood cells of AIDS patients. The abnormality may prove useful as a confirmatory AIDS test, he says, and also suggests that the virus may be infecting the precursor cells that develop into red blood cells. "It warrants further investigation," he says.
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Author:Silberner, Joaanne
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 15, 1986
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