This Device Offers Hidden HIV Protection For Women

Public health experts are excited about a vaginal ring’s potential to protect high-risk women in sub-Saharan Africa from HIV.

But the research that purports to demonstrate the ring’s effectiveness also reveals drawbacks that have plagued previous HIV prevention strategies, like daily antiretroviral pills or vaginal gels, in similar settings.

More than half of the 35 million people living with HIV around the world are women. And most of these women live in sub-Saharan Africa, where access to medical care is spotty and societal inequality between men and women interferes with a woman’s ability to protect herself against HIV.

For instance, PReP, a daily pill designed to prevent the spread of HIV among high-risk groups, has demonstrated a 100 percent effectiveness rate among gay men in California. But past studies show that PReP isn’t effective at all for African women — not for biological reasons, but because there are social and cultural blocks that prevented these women from taking the pill every day.

Researchers hoped to offer better protection to women with the new vaginal ring, which is discrete, imperceptible to the male partner and only needs to be replaced once every four weeks. But a large multinational trial, published Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that the ring has an effectiveness rate of just 27 percent overall.

When researchers looked at the data a second time and excluded non-complying participants and the youngest group of women (between 18 and 24 years old), the ring’s effectiveness rating rose to 61 percent — a much more promising level of prevention.

The ring shows that researchers still have a lot to learn about the kind of HIV prevention that disenfranchised, high-risk African women, who may not have complete control over their own bodies or medical —> Read More