HIV, AIDS, contraception, Africa, women's health, condoms

“To see statistically significant HIV protection is a great step forward.”

Two new studies, conducted between 2012 and 2015, have found a vaginal ring laced with an anti-AIDS drug reduces the risk of women contracting HIV. The results were presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston on Monday.

The experimental drug used in the ring is called Dapirivine, and the design of the rings themselves is similar to those available for birth control or hormone replacement therapy (HRT). They are intended to be changed monthly, and if released onto the shelves, would be aimed at women in developing countries.

The studies included women from Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe, and their average age was 26.

Conducted through the National Institutes of Health’s Microbicide Trials Network, the first study was overseen by vice chairman of global health in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, Dr Jared Baeten. The second study, known as the Ring Study, was led by the nonprofit International Partnership for Microbicides. Regulatory approval for the rings could take up to two years, and scientists are hoping the products will be on the market by the beginning of 2019.

“I’m really optimistic about the results,” Baetten said of the studies.

“To see statistically significant HIV protection is a great step forward.”

Across the two studies, which included a total of 4,588 women, those who used the ring were up to 31 per cent less likely to contract HIV than those who were given a placebo. They were also found to be more effective among women over 25; their risk of HIV infection was reduced by 61 per cent in one study, and 37 per cent in the second study. This is largely because older women were more likely to use the devices regularly.

However, the rings offered little to no protection in women below 25, as they did not use the ring continually or correctly. AIDS researcher and co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research in Atlanta Carlos del Rio, who was not involved in the studies, stated it was disappointing younger women didn’t use the products consistently.

“The people who need it the most didn’t use it. It’s a huge challenge we have ahead of us,” said del Rio.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 37 million people around the world are living with HIV, and more than half of them are women. In African countries, women are up to eight times more likely to contract the virus, primarily because many are unable to convince their partners to use condoms, or do not have access to them. Preventative rings would provide an easy, convenient measure to reduce the risk of infection, and would be an empowering step forward in women’s health.

Comment: Do you think most women would be open to using an AIDS preventative vaginal ring?