Sydney – The recent controversial study which suggests that there is a link between hormonal contraceptives and HIV came under the spotlight at the International Microbicides Conference in Sydney, Australia, today.
The findings shook the medical fraternity and left many activists confused about what messages to give the public.
The study in question was conducted by Renee Heffron and colleagues in several African countries, including South Africa. It found that women using injectable contraceptives like Depo-Provera, commonly used in South Africa, are twice as likely to acquire HIV-1. It also revealed that the users were at a higher risk of transmitting the virus to their partners.
Professor Helen Rees, executive director of the Reproductive Health Research Unit at the University of Witwatersrand, cautioned delegates not to ignore the findings of the study even though it was based on limited data.
“The risk is there and should not be ignored. Yes, we still need more studies to prove this but in the meantime we need to expand the methods of family planning and cautiously phase out Depo-Provera,” she said.
However, Zvavahera Mike Chirenje of the University of Zimbabwe, who did a similar study two years ago – which found no link between hormonal contraceptives and HIV – argued that until there was definitive evidence of the link women must not be discouraged from using Depo-Provera – a commonly available and preferred form of contraception in Southern Africa.
It is believed that the use of contraception has declined in South Africa in the past few years. Although there are no recent statistics, the 2003 Demographic and Health Survey revealed that 65% of married women in South Africa (then) used some form of contraception. It also showed contraceptive use had increased among the age group of 25-29 and 35-39 between 1998 and 2003.
While many questions remain unanswered about the link between oral and injectable contraceptives and HIV-1, statistics indicate that women who were between 25-39 years old in 2003 are now the hardest hit by HIV and Aids.
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