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Vaginal ring to protect young girls against HIV

Health & Science

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) is studying the potential of a vaginal ring in prevention of new HIV infection among adolescent and young women.

The research body is exploring the safety and tolerability of the ring which contains dapivirine, an antiretroviral drug, as well as a hormonal contraceptive, levonorgestrel. The pregnancy hormone will however only be infused in later studies, according to Kemri researchers.

The ring promises to lower risk of infection by 96 per cent among the youthful population if adopted.

The ring is a semi-permeable silicone matrix placed around the cervix and which gradually releases the anti-HIV drug into the bloodstream, keeping a predisposed woman safe from infection two days after insertion.

The drug acts against HIV sub-type 1 which is the most common in Kenya. Although the ring also promises to ward off unwanted pregnancy in later studies, it does not prevent STIs.

Its use on sexually active girls aged between 15 and 24 years old is a response to reports of increasing cases of new infections in this age group, research officers said on Saturday.

Kemri research officer Eunice Ouma said they were seeking to introduce it as a new tool in the war against HIV because the population group was responding poorly to available measures, including oral pre-exposure tablets and use of condoms.

“We have the greenlight from relevant authorities, including the Pharmacy and Poisons Board and we are getting into the recruitment phase where we are going put young HIV at-risk girls on clinical trials,” she told the Saturday Standard.

She said studies done in Nyanza had shown that young girls at risk of contracting HIV were not using available tools to keep themselves safe due to varied reasons including fear of taking every day pre-exposure pills.

Factors which make women more vulnerable to HIV infection, she explained, include poverty, which exposes them to transactional sex; difficulty in negotiating for safe sex compared to their male counterparts, lack of information on preventive measures, higher HIV co-receptors and susceptibility to immune weakening sexually transmitted diseases.

According to estimates by the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), there were 71,000 new HIV infections in the country in 2016, with nine counties – including the whole of Nyanza- responsible for 65 per cent of these infections.

Out of the country’s population of nearly 46 million in 2016, 1.1 per cent of girls aged between 15 to 19 years old were infected with HIV, compared to 0.9 per cent boys that age.

Biomedical intervention include provision of HIV preventive drugs and tools such as the ring, PreP pills and injectable.

The ring is widely in use in America and Europe but has not been licensed for sale in the country.     

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