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Kenya Looks for HIV-Safe Birth Control

Kenya Looks for HIV-Safe Birth Control
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VIDEO: The Kenya Medical Research Institute says women using the popular birth-control injection known as Depo Provera are at risk of HIV infection. Mohammed Yusuf reports from Nairobi.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute said women using the popular birth control injection known as Depo Provera are at risk of HIV infection.

After observing 228 Nairobi women using various contraceptives, researchers found that women using Depo Provera have higher levels of a chemical suspected of making them more prone to HIV infection compared to those using other contraceptives.

Makena Majira, a student, said many of her college mates "fear getting pregnant [more] than getting the other [sexually transmitted] infections."

"Most of them fear getting pregnant because they are not ready to take care of the unborn baby," she added.

While an increasing number of girls and women are going to the pharmacy to get birth control pills without a doctor's prescription, researchers say, they may be neglecting the fact that HIV has claimed the lives of millions worldwide.

This kind of behavior has prompted health researchers in Kenya to explore ways to educate women about contraceptives and keep them safe from infectious sexual diseases such as HIV.

Doctor Elizabeth Bukusi, who works with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, said in one of their studies, researchers found that one particular drug has contributed to the increase of HIV.

She said the question was whether HIV was associated with the use of certain contraceptives, and in particular Depo Provera, which is widely-used in sub-Saharan Africa.

"It's a discrete injection. Women find it convenient because they go for it once every three months," she said. "So the question is, is it because we have a large number of women using this product in the same area where you have a lot of HIV? So this association is one that has been found, but we had no study to answer this question yet."

To explore the association further, researchers are looking into whether ingredients in the drug are responsible for the increase in HIV infection, or if it has to do with the sexual behavior of its users.

Health researchers say that while male condoms are readily available, not all women have the option of insisting their partners use them. Female condoms, however, are costly and hard to find.

Due to this, Bukusi says researchers have come up with innovative preventative technologies such as Microbicides, which, in gel-, film-, or ring-form, stops the woman from getting infected once it is inserted within the vagina.

"And we are particularly thinking about a mechanism that young women can use to protect themselves from getting HIV," she added. "Women aged 16 and 25 are at highest risk of getting HIV. And so we are looking at options that will allow these women to manage their reproductive lives in a healthy manner."

According to the World Health Organization, Kenya has the fourth highest number of HIV infections in the world. The country's health officials say at least 100,000 people are infected annually.

Health observers say as researchers work on preventative HIVmeasures, there is need to create awareness to keep more people safe and healthy.

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