Women’s Lives on the Line: AVAC’s new report takes on prevention, targets, research and results

February 23, 2015

AIDS terminology comes and goes. There are short-lived acronyms like MARP (Most-At-Risk Populations) and unpronounceable but universally recognized ones like GFATM. Right now, the way that much of the world is talking about women and girls and their risk of HIV acquisition is as treacherous a field of terms and euphemisms as advocates have seen. Women and their prevention needs are, due to fuzzy rhetoric, left hiding in plain sight.

All of this is going to matter a great deal as the world grapples with the data expected from this week’s Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, which will bring the release of new data on a range of HIV prevention tools including daily oral PrEP in gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), serodiscordant couples who were offered PrEP and also offered ART, and PrEP dosed around sex acts (different from the FDA-approved daily Truvada regimen). It will also bring the long-awaited data from the FACTS 001 microbicide trial, which tested a 1% tenofovir gel, applied before and after sex, in South African women.

We don’t know what the data are, but we do know what some of the pitfalls in discussing women’s prevention and treatment needs are. So here are a few points to keep in mind—each of which is expanded upon the recent AVAC Report: Prevention on the Line—as the week unfolds:

Daily oral PrEP is driving a paradigm shift that may mean different things for men and women. The body of evidence on daily oral PrEP shows that it works if taken correctly and consistently. Right now, there is more “real world” evidence of effectiveness in gay men and other MSM—and less is known about how PrEP could be delivered effectively in young women, particularly those who are not in stable partnerships. The data that do exist suggest that women may need to be more adherent to achieve protection against acquisition during vaginal sex, compared to anal sex. So any data on adherence and efficacy from studies in MSM needs to be contextualized—these data will apply to men whose risk is via anal sex and should not be presented as a global indication of what could work for all populations. Check out Part II in AVAC Report 2014/15 for discussion of these nuances and proposals of what global targets for daily oral PrEP could look like, including for young women and adolescent girls.

Many people aren’t saying what they mean when they say “key populations”. The term “key population” came on the scene as MARP shuffled off. It is used to mean many things, and included groups like gay men and other MSM, transgender women, people who inject drug, and sex workers. Sometimes it is used to mean under-served and over-burdened populations, and in this context that includes women and adolescents. Sometimes people say, “key populations and women”. CROI will certainly include information on prevention and treatment services for key populations. Check out our box in AVAC Report 2014/5 on what clarity should look like with this term. Watch closely as data are presented, and keep this question in mind: Where are the women?

Microbicide research is critical to the future of women’s prevention—but no single trial has all the answers. AVAC Report 2013 focused extensively on what recent trials have taught the field about women’s experiences in research. And the upcoming, highly anticipated data from FACTS 001 will provide even more information. Because women’s prevention needs are great, and the current range of available tools is small, each new finding carries enormous weight. Will an efficacy finding trigger a global change in prevention programming? No. Not right away. There are limited quantities of the gel available and much to understand about how it might work in the real world. Will a lack of efficacy signal the end of user-dependent methods? No. Not at all. Each trial has brought a trove of information about how and why women use specific products and how they relate to research, and it’s imperative to act on this information—to listen to women—whatever the outcomes.

Throughout the next few weeks, we’ll cover CROI developments and highlight relevant sections of our recent Report. Bookmark our CROI page and stay tuned!