The latest report from UNAIDS that gains made in the fight against new HIV infections may be reversed ten years back is worrying. Every week this year, Kenya is recording 275 new HIV infections from adolescents and young women aged between 18 and 25 years. Although no research has been done, it is believed that girls younger than 18 are also getting infected.
Loss of incomes, schools closure, sickness and even deaths due to COVID 19 which continues to ravage the country since March 2020 have been pointed to as some of the reasons why there has been a spike in the numbers of girls who are contracting HIV. This is because adolescents and young women have turned to transactional sex to buy essentials like sanitary towels and even food, are engaged in cross generational sex due to early marriages to escape poverty, and some have been sexually violated.
“Unless all stakeholders come together and re-direct their efforts by doing everything necessary, we risk reversing the milestones made in fighting new HIV infections. If we are to attain our target of zero infections by 2030, we must ensure we are on the path to recording fewer cases of new infections,” said Rosemary Mburu, WACI Health Care CEO during a one day workshop dubbed ‘a conversation with young women and policy makers in Kenya in view of women initiated HIV prevention options’.
News that adolescents and young women can take charge of their own health and protect themselves from possible HIV infection is exciting. With a Silicon Ring laced with anti-retroviral drug Dapivirine, every sexually active woman has been afforded an opportunity to remain protected. The Ring which has been under research for 16 years received a positive opinion form European Medicines Agency (EMA) in July 2020 with the World Health Organisation (WHO) approving it for prequalification. It has already undergone phase I, II and III studies, and has been found to protect women from HIV infection at an over 50 percent rate for those who adhered to it as instructed. The ring is now into phase IV clinical trials, to ascertain its efficacy in mass population.
Once approved, adolescents and young women at their own privacy and convenience will have access to the first woman initiated HIV prevention option available for use. The Ring is designed to protect one for 28 days upon insertion to the cervix by releasing a daily dose of the Dapivirine drug to the cervix, making it effective for cisgender women only.
“The fact that I can protect myself from a possible HIV infection by using something which my sexual partner does not have to know I am using is empowering,” said one young woman who participated in the conference. Indeed, may other young women who attended the conference were grateful that for the first time, there is a product that has been developed with them in mind, and are looking forward to when the Ring will be made available in the country.
Joyce Ouma, a young HIV advocate urged all HIV negative adolescents and young women to embrace the Ring when it is eventually available, stating that whereas other options that exist are excellent, the Ring affords one the power to self- protect without having to negotiate for the same from a sexual partner. “Besides, since nobody plans to have sex, it is better to have something which will protect you for any in eventuality,” she added.
Indeed, although the Ring does not offer 100 percent protection from HIV, the consensus from the participants was that they were better of protected at some degree than remain exposed to the virus.