Ask the Expert: Women & HIV Prevention

by Guest Contributors

Today marks International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate “the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women” and to renew the international community's commitment to a more gender inclusive world.

Today marks International Women’s Day (IWD), a day to celebrate “the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women” and to renew the international community's commitment to a more gender inclusive world.

The theme of this year’s IWD is #BeBoldforChange, and it is in that spirit that the HRC blog recently sat down with Beverley and Vanetta of the Initiative for Multipurpose Prevention Technologies (IMPT) to talk about the importance of providing women and girls with more choices to meet both their sexual and reproductive health needs.

According to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, HIV is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age (15-24) around the globe. Why do we continue to see such staggering rates among women globally?

There are a variety of factors that contribute to the continued high incidence of HIV among adolescent girls and young women. Physiologically, women are more vulnerable to contracting HIV and this risk is more pronounced among adolescents. Social and structural factors such as stigma, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, lack of a comprehensive sexual health education, and gender inequity (including gender-based violence, poverty, and the criminalization of sex work), are all contributors to the HIV epidemic among women and girls. Furthermore, with competing life priorities such as financial stability, housing, and other health-related concerns, HIV prevention may not be an immediate concern to some women.

Your organization advocates for the development of multipurpose prevention technologies (MPTs). Can you explain what those are, and how they would help women and girls?

MPTs, Multipurpose Prevention Technologies, are an innovative class of prevention products that enable women and girls to address multiple health concerns in one product, including HIV, other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unintended pregnancy. Many of the methods in development are woman-controlled and more discreet than condoms. Male and female condoms are the only MPTs currently available on the market but their use requires partner negotiation. Furthermore, the 2016 UNAIDS Prevention Gap Report noted that condom availability in Sub-Saharan Africa (where the highest HIV incidence levels are) is less than half of what is needed. MPTs currently in development include vaginal rings, gels, fast-dissolving films, inserts, and long-acting injectables. Some MPTs prevent pregnancy and infections, while others would allow women to become pregnant while preventing HIV and other STIs.

The current estimate of women worldwide with an unmet need for modern contraception is 225 million, and in the U.S., nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. Every day, a million people acquire an STI, and due to underdiagnoses and lack of treatment, these STIs make women more susceptible not only to contracting HIV, but also to acquiring cervical cancer and becoming infertile. A global collaboration of sexual and reproductive health experts anticipate that MPTs will be important tools for improving the health of women and families worldwide.

IMPT is a woman-led organization engaging in woman-focused HIV prevention advocacy. How does your approach differ from other organizations? How might your approach benefit HIV prevention efforts focused on other communities impacted by HIV such as gay and bisexual men?

Our approach is different from others in several ways. Not only do we advocate for women’s empowerment and the engagement of women in the product development process from the beginning, but we are also product-neutral and work to develop and disseminate resources that aid in creating a field-wide strategy. In addition, we convene experts from multidisciplinary fields to promote cross collaboration. As a woman-led organization, we are committed to building the capacities of young woman MPT champions around the world and to empowering women and girls to take control of their sexual and reproductive health. The IMPT is committed to building partnerships with organizations who serve other populations, such as HRC, so we can help facilitate knowledge sharing and network building around new scientific advances and advocacy priorities.

What can HRC members and supporters do to support your efforts generally and the development of MPTs specifically? How close are we to seeing one on the market?

Advocacy is key! We need more people to advocate for continued investment and public-private partnerships to support the critical research and development of MPTs. We also need HIV advocates to spread the word and educate others about the promise of MPTs! You can stay up to date by joining our list serve and if you work in a related field, you can join the IMPT Network of Experts and contribute to the IMPT’s collective expertise. With over two dozen products in the various stages of clinical development, we firmly believe in the promise of MPTs to improve the lives of women, girls, and families around the world.

HRC’s “Ask the Expert” series breaks down “hot topics” in LGBTQ health so you don’t have to. To learn more about HRC’s work on other LGBTQ health and aging issues, click here.