Every four minutes, three young women will become infected with HIV—that’s close to 900,000 new infections a year. While HIV prevention research and drug development have progressed rapidly, there is still work to be done. This World AIDS Day, we reflect on our work to advance MPTs by asking the IMPT Advisory Council for their perspective on the role of MPTs in the fight to end the HIV epidemic.
The responses we received left a clear message: current HIV prevention options inadequately meet women’s needs across the globe. Based upon her extensive experience working on condom distribution globally, Chastain Mann of WCG reflected that women “need better ways to protect their sexual and reproductive health (SRH). With female condoms as the only current woman-controlled MPT, they need more options…new products that will solve multiple health needs at the same time.” Similarly, Kenya Medical Research Institute’s (KEMRI) Elizabeth Bukusi noted that “MPTs will offer more choice for women to find something that can work for them. Something that will fit into their life style and their stage of life.” Since women have different needs and preferences that change throughout their lives, any effective solution requires having a diverse array of prevention options. The same women who are at risk for HIV infection also face risks for other sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy. MPTs hold the potential to help women better address the full spectrum of their SRH prevention needs.
Advisory Council members also noted that prevention options that better meet the needs of women can also serve as a tool for empowerment by addressing factors that contribute to stigma and intimate partner violence. MPTs allow women to take charge of their own sexual and reproductive health without bias or judgment. For instance, Mann points out that “there is lingering stigma around the use of…condoms with regular partners. If women are given the option to use a single product that offers this protection as well as prevention of pregnancy, however, much of this stigma will disappear.” Furthermore, through work with Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in South Africa, Thesla Palanee voiced that “Women in power imbalanced relationships find it challenging to have difficult conversations with partners. Empowering women to have access to MPTs…would help reduce the need for some difficult conversations as a consequence of reducing their risk of HIV infection.” Prevention options that women can control would help to reduce the physical, economic, and social barriers they face in this arena. As a result, they are empowered to be in the fight against the HIV epidemic because the choice is in their hands.
We at the IMPT Secretariat will continue to advocate for and accelerate action around progress in the MPT field so that women and girls worldwide can experience these potential benefits. The Advisory Council supports our role in doing so as a product-neutral convener of the MPT field. Bukusi reflected that the IMPT has “remained a champion and advocate and relentless voice for the agenda of responding to the SRH needs of women.” The IMPT serves as a “clearinghouse for manufacturers, donors, implementers, researchers, and others with an interest in MPTs,” as indicated by Mann, in order to keep the field up-to-date with the latest trends and information about women-informed research for product advancement.
The evolution of MPT research and development has resulted in an array of products ranging from vaginal rings, inserts, films, gels, and more as seen in the MPT product pipeline database. However, with grounded global efforts, we can continue inspiring innovators of the field to produce prevention options that will be impactful for ending the HIV epidemic. Palanee represents the field’s profound commitment to this purpose, as she expressed that “it is my responsibility to give back to women…if I can contribute to decreasing prevalence and incidence it will be time and effort well invested.” Alongside our esteemed and committed Advisory Council, the IMPT will work to ensure that women have more and better prevention choices that will decrease new HIV infections, along with other sexual and reproductive health risks.
World AIDS Day serves as a reminder to all of us that we must remain fiercely committed to improving women’s sexual and reproductive health. Together, we can all be champions for HIV prevention and work toward a world where women are empowered to protect their sexual and reproductive health—and have the tools to do so. Together we take action to create a world free of HIV!