By Mike Mwaniki
Young women have welcomed the proposed introduction of a new monthly vaginal ring for protection them against HIV in Kenya.
Led by Ms Joyce Ouma—the adolescent and young women (AGYM)—described the dapivirine vaginal ring as “a game-changer” in reducing new HIV infections especially among women aged over 18 in Kenya and other developing countries.
The ring, which is inserted into the vagina delivers an antiretroviral drug called dapivirine. It’s released slowly over the course of one month directly to vaginal tissue to protect against HIV in cases of potential infection. Little of the drug is absorbed elsewhere in the body resulting in low systemic uptake, according to the manufacturer, International Partnership for Microbicides.
Speaking during a function held in Nairobi as a prelude to this year’s World Aids Day, Ms Ouma said: “As young women, we are excited that the dapivirine ring will give us a chance to prevent new HIV infections as we shall insert and remove the vaginal ring by ourselves.”
“Since sex is sometimes spontaneous, the ring will protect ourselves on a monthly basis, therefore, complementing existing HIV prevention methods,” she said.
At the same time, Ambassadors for Youth official, Ms Jerop Limo, 24, said there was need for concerted efforts in reducing new HIV infections among this age-group.
A leading Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) researcher, Dr Nelly Mugo emphasised that in Kenya and in the African region— women and young girls contributed more than twice the number of new HIV infections—due to their biological make-up among other socio-cultural factors.
Dr Mugo described the dapivirine vaginal ring as a flexible, silicone ring that a woman can insert in the vagina for monthly protection against HIV.
“The ring is designed to provide women with a discreet and long-acting option for HIV prevention.
At the same time, Dr Mugo said in a number of studies initially conducted in Belgium and in the US, and then in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania—the ring was found to be safe, while other studies elsewhere also showed it was efficacious.
“The initial research included women aged 18—45, with additional safety studies among post-menopausal women and adolescent girls aged 15—17 in the USA,” she said.
Fielding questions from journalists, Dr Mugo described the ring as “effective and acceptable to young women” since a sex partner would not know that the ring is in place during sex.
The ring is re-usable, and one is able to remove it after one month, and then re-insert.
“However, the intra-vaginal ring does not protect a user against pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs),” added the scientist.
The LVCT senior technical advisor, Ms Patricia Jeckonia said her organisation was carrying out a study on how much those willing to utilise the product would pay for the product while also generating demand uptake by tailoring appropriate messages to the Kenyan market to the target population.
A National Aids and STI Programme (NASCOP) programme officer, Maureen Inimah said an assessment done in 2010 revealed that only seven per cent of health facilities in Kenya offered youth-friendly services.
The Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) acting clinical trials Head, Dr Lydia Kitai said once the ring was prequalified by the World Health Organisation, the Board would take between one to two months to give approval for the product for use in Kenya.
According to experts, in Kenya, about 275 young girls are infected with HIV weekly with the highest age group being among adolescent girls between 10 and 19 in the country and across Africa.
The World Aids Day 2020, which was commemorated on December 1, was themed on: “Global Solidarity and Shared Responsibility”.
Earlier, WACI- Health is an African regional advocacy organization- Kenya Executive director, Ms Rosemary Mburu said about 1.5 million people were living with HIV with 35,000 new HIV infections occurring annually.
“Our desire is to have zero new HIV infections but the Covid-19 pandemic is posing a threat in the progress so far made,” she says.
A recent UNAIDS report says coronavirus is likely to reverse progress and gains made against HIV in the last 10 years due to a weak health system, Ms Mburu added.
Various structural, social-cultural and legal barriers have been identified as some of the factors fueling the spread of HIV among young girls.
These include gender inequality, discrimination, violence, limited access to education, lack of tailored services, multiple sex partners, poverty, among others, which inhibit women and girls’ access to health care, therefore, fanning new infections.