To curb Aids, empower women

Monday June 7 2010

By E. MATAKA & Z. ROSENBERG

AFRICAN WOMEN ARE NO ST-rangers to overcoming adversity. Every day across Kenya, women perform small miracles, working long hours or travelling great distances to provide for their families.

But when it comes to staying healthy, the odds are stacked against them. Biological and gender inequalities make women, especially mothers, more vulnerable to disease and death.

In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, one in every 22 women dies during pregnancy or childbirth. In Kenya, that number is one in 39, as compared to one in every 4,800 women in the United States and only one in every 47,600 in Ireland.

Women have too few choices about their health and too few options that would give them the chance for a safe and healthy life.

That is why we applaud the growing attention being paid to the health of women and mothers.

Just this week, 3,500 world leaders, including Mrs Ida Odinga, and advocates and health experts are gathering at the Women Deliver conference in Washington D.C. to keep up the pressure to improve the lives of women and girls.

Their measure of success is nothing less than achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal 5 – a 75 per cent reduction in global maternal mortality by 2015, compared to 1990 levels.

There has been measurable progress; fewer women are dying during pregnancy or childbirth now than at any other point in the past 30 years. But in the fight to save lives, the path is rarely easy, and this progress is seriously threatened by the unrelenting spread of HIV/Aids.

Aids contributes to 60,000 deaths during pregnancy and childbirth every year, most of them on this continent. It is the leading killer of women aged 15-44.

Our collective efforts to improve maternal health globally will fall far short unless we help women protect themselves. It is clear we need to focus on both issues at the same time if we are to make a lasting impact on the lives of Africa’s women.

At Women Deliver, reproductive health advocates and HIV prevention advocates are teaming up to find innovative ways of giving women more control over their bodies, even in the poorest areas.

A promising example already underway is the effort to adapt new reproductive health technologies in the hopes of giving women long-lasting ways to prevent HIV.

One device called a vaginal ring is popular among women in the US and Europe for birth control. It is self-administered and easy-to-use, and provides month-long protection against pregnancy.

Now, scientists are testing a vaginal ring that could provide protection against HIV for up to a month at a time – giving women a powerful new tool.

This ring contains a potent anti-retroviral drug (ARV) like those used successfully in HIV treatment. The ring belongs to a class of products known as vaginal microbicides – products that women could use to prevent HIV – that are under development, specifically for women.

If successful, microbicides could help fill a major gap in current HIV prevention, which usually require male consent or force women to choose between staying healthy and having children.

Ms Elizabeth Mataka is special envoy of the UN Secretary-General for HIV/Aids in Africa, and executive director of the Zambia National Aids Network, while Dr Zelda Rosenberg is CEO of the International Partnership for Microbicides