“Can a woman really get AIDS from artificial insemination?”
It was a common question Tuesday after state Schools Superintendent Judith Billings revealed she has AIDS.
Only a dozen such cases worldwide have been confirmed by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, an AIDS expert in Seattle.
Men who donate sperm for artificial insemination are now usually tested for the HIV virus. That wasn’t so in the early 1980s, when Billings says she contracted the virus, Goldbaum said.
Billings said she was inseminated in an unsuccessful attempt to have a child. Two pregnancies resulted in miscarriage.
Testing blood for HIV has become commonplace only since 1985, when the first laboratory test was developed.
“Judith Billings was in that group inseminated before testing was available,” Goldbaum said. “There’s no way you could have prevented that.”
Washington state has no law requiring sperm donors to be screened for HIV, but reputable sperm banks follow 1988 CDC guidelines that call for testing.
In light of Billings’ announcement, doctors expect a surge in AIDS-testing among women who were artificially inseminated - some 60,000 to 80,000 women a year before 1985.
No one knows how Billings’ health will hold up, because everyone responds differently to the virus. Some people live just a few years after contracting HIV, while others survive for 15 years or longer.
How AIDS patients spend the rest of their lives also differ drastically, with some people remaining healthy for years while others are in and out of the hospital.
“Most people start showing signs of wear and tear on their system within seven to 10 years,” said Dr. Daniel Coulston, a Spokane physician who specializes in AIDS treatment.
Billings can expect to take a daily assortment of pills. Doctors recommend combining drugs that target the HIV infection itself with drugs aimed at preventing opportunistic infections that prey on people with weakened immune systems.
Billings is the most high-profile of the 379 women in Washington state known to have been diagnosed with AIDS.