Young women influencing the agenda

October 29, 2014

This was originally published on the What’sUpHIV blog that provided live coverage during HIV R4P 2014.

In a session on Reproductive hormones and HIV risks, the data showed the need for the ECHO trial, which is a proposed trial that would evaluate three different contraceptive methods (DEPO-provera, the Jadelle implant and the copper IUD) in relation to HIV acquisition. There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about ECHO recently.

The presentation by Christine Wall on hormonal contraception use and the risk of female to male HIV transmission in a Zambian Cohort showed no HIV risk for men in discordant relationships. Elizabeth Byrne’s presentation showed there is some risk of HIV acquisition among injectable progestogen contraceptive (IPC) users in South Africa compared to women who were not using hormonal methods. Byrne also looked at why this might be. She looked at both the natural hormone, progestogen and progestin (the synthetic form of the hormone). Women who are not using hormonal contraceptive and are ‘cycling naturally’—getting their periods—have regular changes in levels of progestogen. IPC users have high levels of progestin due to the contraceptive. In both of these groups of women, elevated hormone was linked to elevated levels of HIV target cells in the cervix.

At the end of this session, Helen Rees, one of the principal investigators of the proposed ECHO trial spoke to the continued need for this trial. She remarked that the data—including presentations from this session—were confusing and/or contradictory, thus the need to get adequate and accurate answers from ECHO as to to whether hormonal contraception increases the risk of HIV. She spoke to the real possibility of the ECHO trial happening noting that it “appeared” it would move forward. This wasn’t a firm confirmation—an important clarification since the session chair suggested that it was certain.

In a lunch-time session at the Advocates Corner, young women advocates and researchers had a dialogue on young women’s access to HIV prevention: past, present and future. Young women from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, South Africa, Zimbabwe and other regions, raised issues of lack of sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) access, including family planning and information. One participant noted that the young women want to use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) but it is not available. American advocate Anna Forbes stressed that the initial demonstration projects have not targeted young women even though they are more at risk for HIV infection. Plans are underway for demonstration studies for young women in South Africa and Kenya that will answer if PrEP is feasible among young women. There is therefore a need for young women to start influencing the agenda to address their specific needs.

During a presentation today on PrEP and Microbicides adherence in women, extensive evidence was presented on why some women were not using the products. There was evidence presented on why some women did not use the product. Reasons ranged from having non -supportive partners, fear of possible side effects to peer pressure. The researchers described the impact of discussing “PK” data with participants in VOICE. PK stands for pharmacokinetics, and in this case it refers to the presence of detectable drug in the women’s blood (both the gel and the oral pill in VOICE had tenofovir-based drugs). Adherence to the products was very low in all the VOICE arms—and there was no evidence of protection in any arms.

In a follow up protocol known as VOICE-D, study sites talked to women about their product use, and then also shared the PK data for individual women. Women who said they had adhered very well sometimes changed what they disclosed when their PK data was shared—showing that they had not It was exciting to hear that giving women P.K results initiated discussion on product use. One of the interesting points in the session seemed to be that there is a difference in how long it takes for PrEP to begin to provide protection in women versus men—we’d like to follow up and learn more. Very little was presented on why some women did use the microbicide products in the VOICE trial.