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New study links popular birth control pill to HIV risk yet again

Health & Science - By GATONYE GATHURA | January 28th 2015 at 12:05:00 GMT +0300

NAIROBI: New evidence shows women using the popular birth control pill, Depo Provera, are at a greater risk of HIV infection, reinforcing similar findings reported four years ago.

Last week on Friday, researchers from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), US and Sweden said women using Depo Provera were at a higher risk of getting HIV infection.

The team had followed 228 women in Nairobi, some using Depo and others on different contraceptives. Those using Depo were found to habour higher levels of a chemical suspected to make women more prone to HIV infection compared to those using other types of contraceptives.

This new information published in the international Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome echoes a similar report covering almost 40,000 women in Kenya and other African countries presented two weeks ago.

The study presented on January 9 had analysed 12 studies carried out in Africa on the possible link between the contraceptive and increased HIV transmission.

The study concluded that women using Depo have about 40 per cent higher odds of becoming infected with HIV, compared to women using some other forms of birth control or no birth control at all.

However, a statement to the media from the drug maker Pfizer said they are not aware of any scientific evidence showing any association between use of their product and an increase in HIV transmission rates.

CHEAP CONTRACEPTIVE

Depo is mainly used in African countries because it is much cheaper than most other alternatives, thus preferred by donor programmes.

The controversy was first raised in 2011 from a study carried out in Kenya and six other African countries, which claimed Depo doubled the risk of being infected with HIV among users.

The study in Kenya had been carried out by Kemri, Moi University and the University of Nairobi in collaboration with researchers from nine international universities.

The study had engaged 3,790 women in Kenya, Botswana, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia and advised them to use the injection together with condoms to protect against HIV infection.

However, the Ministry of Health with support from the World Health Organisation (WHO) dismissed the findings of the 2011 study, saying they were not conclusive. The ministry also advised women to ignore the findings.

In 2013, Dr Mary Lyn Gaffield of the global health agency said reviews they had done of the Kenyan and other studies did not warrant a change of WHO guidelines on the use of the contraceptive.

But Kenyan scientists did not take the WHO opinion kindly, writing a rejoinder in the scientific journal; The Lancet, saying they stood by their findings. The scientists then called for more studies to conclusively resolve the issue.

"Our study showed an increased risk of HIV transmission in women using the contraceptive, which needs to be further investigated," Dr Nelly Mugo, one of the researchers from Kenyatta National Hospital had told the Press.

She had said the team stood by its earlier advice for women at a high risk of HIV infection to practice a contraceptive mix consisting of either a male or female condom.

As if the piling evidence is not enough to warrant a re-look at the rationale of distributing hormonal contraceptives especially to African women who have few alternatives, the same contraceptives were linked to a brain cancer called glioma by a Danish researcher three days ago.


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