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Does a Birth Control Method Raise HIV Risk?

Women wait for treatment at a clinic in Kenya.

Women wait for treatment at a clinic in Kenya.

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

The World Health Organization has called a meeting to discuss if there is truly a link between hormonal birth control and the spread of HIV.

A new study in Africa looked mainly at the use of injectable hormones. It found that women who used them had double the risk of getting infected by a male partner with HIV. It also found that men were twice as likely to get HIV from infected women who used hormonal contraception than from those who did not. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Renee Heffron and other researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle led the study. She advises couples to use condoms in addition to other forms of birth control to prevent HIV and unwanted pregnancy. She spoke on Skype from Kenya.

RENEE HEFFRON: "It’s really important that women continue to use hormonal contraceptives, but also that they really understand the importance of using condoms when they are using hormonal contraceptives, and that hormonal contraceptives don’t protect them against HIV, and in fact, may increase their risk."

The WHO has called a meeting of experts in January.

Health groups have been promoting the use of injectable contraceptives as an easy and cost-effective form of birth control. The women can inject themselves, and each shot is effective for three months.

This method is far more popular among African women than birth control pills. HIV risk also appeared to increase in women who took contraceptives in pill form. But the researchers did not study enough of them to say for sure.

The study involved close to four thousand heterosexual couples in Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Either the man or the woman already had HIV when the study began. The researchers tested the partners over a two-year period.

The study appeared last week in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV. South of the Sahara, the virus has spread mainly through sex between men and women.

Experts point out that even if the popular contraceptives increase the risk of HIV, there are also risks to increased pregnancies. Sub-Saharan Africa has high rates of pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths in women and health problems in babies.

The global development organization FHI 360 notes that earlier studies of this issue produced mixed results. It says a higher quality study is urgently needed to compare users of injectable hormones and other contraception methods. Such a study, it says, would take at least four to five years to produce results.

And that's the VOA Special English Health Report. I'm Faith Lapidus.


Contributing: Avi Arditti, Carol Pearson