Why Are African Women Misusing HIV Medication?

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LOS ANGELES — Anti-HIV drugs have been introduced to residents in the rural African areas over the past few years, yielding astounding results. According to the Los Angeles Times, the drugs have been shown to not only lower the risk of transmission in those without HIV, but also increase the life span by more than 11 years of those who suffer from the disease. However helpful, female participants in a recent study called VOICE (Vaginal and Oral Interventions to Control the Epidemic) have been resistant to taking the medication.

According to National Public Radio, VOICE researchers distributed a gel, pill or placebo to 5000 women in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda. However, researchers found that the group receiving treatment was no more protected than the control group. Furthermore, though 90 percent of women in the treatment group claimed to be taking the drug, their blood samples revealed that only about one third of the women were using the drugs properly.

VOICE researchers proceeded to interview the participants to provide insight as to why they were misusing the medication. A myriad of answers came to light. Some were concerned that the medication would cause illness or even give them HIV. These beliefs are common misconceptions in some rural areas.

Other reasons were somewhat practical concerns. Some women worried that using the medication would lead others in the community to believe the participant actually had HIV. The stigma associated with HIV/AIDS is still alive and well in many parts of Africa, and some women admitted to secretly disposing of their medication so that no one would know about it. Some questioned whether the drug was even necessary if they did not have HIV. VOICE researcher Ariane van der Straten explained that “preventive trials,” in which the participants were already healthy, were adhered to much less stringently than trials designed to make the participants better.

In addition to participants neglecting the medication or disposing of it, some African women gave the medication away. According to VOICE, multiple women claimed to have given the medication to friends who they believed were at higher risk. For example, one gave her medication to a friend in the sex trade. Another gave hers to a relative who lives in an area with poor sanitation because she believed the medication had “vaginal cleansing properties.”

Researchers are now planning on reconfiguring the oversight of future studies. Betsy Tolley, another VOICE researcher, believes that the trials could benefit from a more rigorous screening process for participants. Removing individuals from the pool of participants before the trial starts could result in less wasted medication and more accurate research results. During the next trials, both Tolley and van der Straten believe that text message reminders and additional monitoring could help keep participants on course with their medication.

Greater adherence to taking preventive medication could prove to be extremely successful. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heterosexually active male and female trial participants who took the anti-HIV pill Truvada regularly lowered their risk of contracting HIV by 62 percent. Among those who did contract HIV, their blood samples showed lower levels of Truvada in their blood than in uninfected participants.

The results of both the VOICE and CDC studies reveal that the consistent use of preventive HIV medications can mean the difference between contracting HIV and remaining healthy. In order to attain accurate research results, participants benefit from receiving in-depth information about the medication and having the course of the medication monitored.

Bridget Tobin

Sources: NPR, Los Angeles Times, CDC
Photo: Flickr

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