The best way to prevent aids among teenage women in Africa is an ounce of prevention rather than a pound of cure, a new study is finding. The method to prevent the spreading of the AIDS epidemic in Africa by having people take an “chemical condom” pill every day is reported to have achieved nearly a 100% success rate.

AIDS incidents HIV Prevention
Graphic Credit: The Lancet

The “chemical condom” is highly successful in early testing

A method of providing generally poor African females a pill to fight the HIV virus before they contract the disease is proving successful. The technique known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is having dramatic impact at reducing the incidents of AIDS.

PrEP pills are similar to a “chemical condom,” Linda-Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the University of Cape Town, told NPR. The success rate in the pill in the study is near perfect, study organizers said.

“I think having [a form of HIV prevention] that a young woman can use discreetly and is in her absolute control is something we’ve been missing throughout this epidemic,” Bekker, one of the lead investigators in the the pilot study, said. “And I think now for the first time we are able to offer something to young women that is not required at the time of sexual coitus.” Expecting teenagers to negotiate the use of condoms in the heat of sexual passion hasn’t always been successful, she notes.

AIDS cases continue to grow

Bekker says that programs encouraging people to use condoms have not been successful at stopping the spread of the virus, which has significant health costs to society when not prevented.

HIV infections continue to at troubling rates despite new treatments. There are nearly 2.5 million new cases reported each year, according to a study in The Lancet.

Global HIV incidence peak in 1997 at 3.3 million new and then experienced a period decline between 1997 and 2005, the study noted. The number of people living with HIV/AIDS has been steadily increasing and reached 38.8 million in 2015. While cases have increased, the HIV/AIDS mortality rate has been declining. Deaths peaked at 1.8 million in 2005, to 1.2 million in 2015. We recorded substantial heterogeneity in the levels and trends of HIV/AIDS across countries. Although many countries have experienced decreases in HIV/AIDS mortality and in annual new infections, other countries have had slowdowns or increases in rates of change in annual new infections.

Devaluation of sex leads teenage girls to sell themselves to get their cell phones charged

One issue is he devaluation of the act of having sex, particularly in poor communities where sex acts occur on a random basis and are often purchased at little cost.

“When you look at an informal settlement where there isn’t electricity, sex is a sport. Sex is an activity to keep themselves busy,” Sabelo Sekhukhuni, one of the counselors helping to run the PrEP program in Soweto, was quoted as saying.

The pressure for young women to have sex is significant, particularly in villages so poor that running water, indoor plumbing and electricity are nothing more than a dream.

In such areas, young women are reported to be selling themselves to have sex just to obtain electricity to charge cell phones.

“So there’s this one guy who owns a tavern and he has a generator, and he makes people pay 5 rand to charge their cellphones,” Sekukhuni said. The girls can charge their phones for free if they have sex with the tavern owner.

When sex is a transaction with charging a cell phone on the other end, “the tavern owner holds a lot of power in the community.” In many cases men in positions of power are refusing to use condoms, Sekhukhuni said.

“The same girls that sleep with this guy, they’ll go back and sleep with their peers of their same age group,” he says. “Meaning [HIV] is still going to spread some more.”

The cost of the program or who would pay for it on an ongoing basis was not mentioned in the report.