Need to divert focus to young women over HIV fight
As the world marked the International Women’s Day on March 8, I would like to use this space to amplify one of the United Nations’ appeal to the world, which is to ensure that HIV prevention measures works for young women.
The International Women’s Day was declared 20 years ago as part of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic roadmap signed by 189 governments that sets the agenda for realizing women’s rights.
The day was set aside to uphold women’s achievements, recognize challenges, and focus greater attention on women’s rights and gender equality to mobilize all people to do their part.
This year’s global theme, “Make it happen,” reminds us that we must continue to take action to ensure women have options that can protect them from the threat of HIV and AIDS.
Although over the past 15 years, the world has seen a change in the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic, it is unfortunate that this epidemic remains a bigger problem for women.
Worldwide, women constitute more than half of all people living with HIV. For women in their reproductive years (ages 15–49), HIV and AIDS is the leading cause of death, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It is also a well-established fact that women and girls become infected at disproportionately higher rates than men and boys.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where the epidemic has taken the greatest toll, young women are twice as likely to be infected as young men.
Around the world, nearly 2,500 women are infected by HIV every day, and it remains the leading killer of women aged 15 to 44 worldwide, according the WHO.
This evidence is clear, meaning that we cannot win the fight against HIV without focusing on young women who are at higher risk of getting infected.
Although preventing this virus in women has always been both a scientific and a social challenge due to the fact that they are biologically more susceptible to contracting the virus during heterosexual sex than men.
The deep-rooted gender inequities and economic inequality that too often stand between women and safe sex are also contributing to the high prevalence rate of HIV among women.
Condoms, for instance, are highly effective when used consistently and properly, but many women are unable to negotiate its (condom) use with their partners.
Therefore as a way forward to close the gap and lower women’s risk of contracting HIV, we need more female-initiated options that can work for and meet the needs of different women at different times of their lives.
The past decade has seen amazing advances in HIV prevention, including voluntary medical male circumcision, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and most recently, the use of ARV pills in healthy people to prevent infection known as PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis that are being scaled up to reach as many people.
Scientists have also developed HIV prevention tools designed specifically for women, but the process has proved challenging like the vaginal gel products.
Just recently, a clinical trial of a vaginal gel found the product was not effective, largely because young women during the trial of this product had challenges using the gel before and after sex.
Similarly, another trial found that daily use of the gel was not the right approach for the women in that study.
While the results were disappointing, the lesson learned was clear that women need options they can and will use that fit within the context of their lives.
Women need to be empowered by availing to them new HIV prevention options that will have a profound impact on their health, their families and their communities.
If they can be offered practical and effective prevention options, we are not only enable them to protect their own well-being but we also protect their children and future generations.