Over the past few days I’ve been seeing articles about the rate of HIV transmission goes up when a women uses an injectable contraceptive. At first I just kind of brushed them off thinking, “well of course transmission rates go up, the couples using injectables probably aren’t using condoms and condoms are essential at protecting against STD transmission.” As I read more about it, I found out that condom usage actually was tracked by the researchers and women on injectable birth control were twice as likely to give and twice as likely to get HIV as women who didn’t use any type of birth control at all, as in no condoms either. Well, that’s… awful.
According to the researchers, they looked at approximately 3800 couples from Botswana Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia- one of whom was already infected with HIV, and tracked their status for at least 2 years. Women who had a partner who was HIV positive and were using injectables had a transmission rate of “6.61 per 100 person-years (a measurement commonly used by epidemiologists to determine incidence of disease in a population over time), compared with 3.78 among women who used any other method”The male partners of women who used injectables and were HIV positive themselves had a transmission rate of “2.61 per 100 person-years, compared with a rate of 1.51 per 100 person-years in men whose HIV-positive partners used no contraception.”
In laymen’s terms this means that transmission rates doubled when an injectable contraceptive was used than when no contraceptive was used at all. So somehow the hormones in this type of birth control seem to making it easier for HIV antibodies to flourish and transfer bodies. Though scientist do now know how or why it is occurring, at this point it seems hard to deny. Because of the results of this study,the World Health Organization is convening a meeting in January to evaluate whether it should continue to encourage women in AIDS ridden countries to use injectable birth control.
The problem stems from a no-win situation. Injectable birth controls are some of the most effective and easiest to use birth control methods available; especially in areas where access to quality medical care is hardest to get. They can be given without needing a doctor present, only needs to be given once every three months and can be hidden from a partner who may not want his spouse to use birth control. Because of this it is one of the most popular forms of birth control among women in Africa. It is incredibly important that women in countries with already high maternal and infant mortality rates have access to effective contraceptives, such as an injectable. However, if injectables are helping to spread HIV then they pose an equally tragic health risk. One scientist, who found similar results in his own research, mentions that before WHO can recommend discontinued use of injectables they will first need to find an alternative to offer the women in these countries.
It should be pointed out that these results, while specific to women in Africa, are likely to be true for women across the globe. So no matter what kind of birth control you are using, it is important to always, always use a condom if you aren’t sure of your partners STI status. It’s cliché but true: It’s better to be safe, than sorry.