Preventing HIV in adolescent girls will ‘change the course of the epidemic’

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Young women between the ages of 15 and 24 years are among the key population groups with the highest risk of contracting HIV. It is estimated that about 2,000 HIV infections occur weekly in South Africa among this group. Thuthukile Mbatha at Section27 writes in a Spotlight report that a number of HIV-prevention campaigns have been targeting the youth out of school.

Mbatha writes: “Young women between the ages of 15 and 24 years in higher education institutions are usually the last ones to find out about such initiatives. The assumption that young women in higher education institutions are more knowledgeable about HIV prevention – and therefore more responsible – is false. They are as vulnerable as the young women out of school.

“South Africa has a number of HIV-prevention interventions that were introduced to try and curb the increasing number of HIV infections in the country. These include female and male condoms, medical male circumcision, treatment as prevention, Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), and recently, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP).

“PrEP is not yet widely accessible in the public sector South Africa. It can only be accessed through demonstration sites, clinical research institutes, and the private sector. A month’s supply of a daily dose of PrEP costs between R300 and R550 from the private sector. However, not all medical aids will cover the costs.

“PrEP is only given to HIV-negative people who self-identify as being at substantial risk of acquiring HIV. The demonstration sites have seen a very low uptake of PrEP by the key population groups. This has raised concerns about providing it to young women, as they too may have a hard time adhering to the dosage regime; in other words, they may not take it as prescribed.

“Any introduction of a new prevention product or intervention meets a lot of scepticism from the targeted population to begin with. Many clinical trials have been done that have shown that a lot of interventions work; however, they all experience a low uptake at first. The female condom, for instance, has been around for several years, but has been under-used. There have been many campaigns and initiatives highlighting the importance of medical male circumcision, shown to decrease the chances of contracting HIV among men by 60 per cent; however, we are still seeing only a relatively slow increase in the number of young men being circumcised.

“What have we learnt from past experiences? Are we still employing the same strategies that we applied in previous interventions? The US is one of the first countries to roll out PrEP; they also saw a low uptake at first, but it has been improving gradually.

“The scepticism seen is fuelled by the failure of PrEP in some clinical trials, such as those for FEM PrEP and VOICE – both of which involved women. These studies were testing the effectiveness of oral PrEP among women at higher risk of contracting HIV. They had to be stopped early when it became clear that the studies would not be able to show whether or not the pill prevented HIV acquisition (due to low treatment adherence in the trials).

“However, the main reason for this was found to be low adherence. The women in these two studies were not taking the PrEP as prescribed. This conclusion was supported by evidence of very low drug levels in their systems; another reason is that they did not perceive themselves as being at greater risk of contracting HIV. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a person must take the PrEP pill daily for at least seven consecutive days before they are fully protected, and then continue taking it daily.
However, subsequent trials showed that in fact, PrEP does reduce risk in women. The Partners demonstration project was done using serodiscordant heterosexual couples as subjects, and proved effective. These are couples in which one partner is HIV-positive and on treatment, and the other is HIV-negative.

“Some people are concerned that providing PrEP to young women will lead to promiscuity. However, there is no evidence of this among those taking PrEP. Furthermore, PrEP itself reduces the risk of HIV very effectively, so sex on PrEP should not be seen as ‘unprotected’. Sex on PrEP is ‘barrier-free’, perhaps, but certainly not unprotected or unsafe.

“There’s a need here for a paradigm shift when discussing what is and isn’t ‘safer’ sex. Unlike condoms, which protect the user from pregnancy, STIs and HIV infection, PrEP only protects against contracting HIV. Someone taking PrEP would still need to use a condom or some other form of contraception as part of a combination prevention method.

“As women, we value choice. For example, the decision to use Depo-Provera over an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD) as a family planning method lies solely with the individual. Young women in higher education institutions are no exception. They too need to be afforded the opportunity to choose which HIV-prevention option is best for them.

“Studies have confirmed that PrEP works if you take it. So why are we not rolling it out to all young women at substantial risk of acquiring HIV? The alarming pregnancy rates in higher education institutions indicates low use of condoms and other family planning methods.

“Providing PrEP to only a select group of people is not getting us anywhere. The country continues to see rising HIV infections among young women aged between 15 and 24 years. How many more infections do we have to see before we scale it up? Let’s equip young women with access to the best HIV prevention, and with the knowledge that will enable them to make informed decisions. The inclusion of PrEP into a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health package is the first step. PrEP campaigns should go hand in hand with campaigns to promote HIV testing and other available HIV-prevention tools.

“One in five people with HIV – or who have newly acquired HIV – lives in South Africa, despite it being home to less than 1% of the global population. The use of phylogenetics to understand the infection of HIV highlights that about 24% of young women under 25 years of age do not know their HIV status; and about 60% are acquiring HIV from male partners who are on average eight or more years older than them,  (in the 25 to 40 age group). The majority of men of 25 to 40 years old are unaware of their HIV status and have high viral loads, suggesting recently acquired infection and hence higher transmission rates.

“Young men are acquiring HIV from already infected women 25 to 35 years of age; on average, the age difference in these cases is about a year. About 40% of men 25 to 40 years old are having sex with women younger than 25 and women older than 25 concurrently, thus perpetuating these cycles of transmission. Preventing HIV infection in young women under 25 years will require a multi-pronged approach that includes Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights services to young women; finding the missing men (who do not access health services); and treatment of women older than 25.

“Preventing HIV infection in adolescent girls and young women could change the course of the epidemic in Africa, and reverse the current poor global progress in HIV prevention. Oral tenofovir, alone or in combination with emtricitabine (PrEP), is the only woman-initiated prevention technology that does not require partner knowledge or co-operation. We cannot afford not to make this prevention option available to young women.”

Spotlight report

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