New program aims to increase use and adherence of HIV preventive medicine among girls and women in South Africa

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC – A new program aims to increase the use of HIV preexposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) among vulnerable adolescent girls and young women who engage in high-risk sex in Pretoria, South Africa. The strategy, led by RTI International, also seeks to reduce the stigma associated with PrEP.

The project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate the efficacy of this woman-focused HIV prevention strategy. The strategy aims to reduce stigma and discrimination as barriers to adolescent girls and young women ages 16 to 24 when accessing healthcare, increase social support, and decrease individual risk behaviors related to initiating and adhering to PrEP.

“A recent report estimated 2,000 South African adolescent girls and young women are infected with HIV each week,”  said Wendee Wechsberg, Ph.D., director of the Substance Use, Gender, and Applied Research Program at RTI, principal investigator, and developer of the Women’s Health CoOp. “Vulnerable adolescent girls and young women, such as those who engage in high-risk sex—including transactional sex, cross-generational sex, and condomless sex—are at particular risk of HIV.”

An evidence-based empowerment intervention, the Women’s Health CoOp—which addresses gender-based violence, substance use, and sexual risk—will be adapted in this new program to address reproductive health and PrEP uptake and adherence. The Women’s Health CoOp has been included in the USAID Compendium of Gender HIV interventions that are recommended for use in Africa.

Staff from community-based clinics in Pretoria will undergo training to reduce stigmatizing and discriminatory attitudes and behaviors towards adolescent girls and young women. Further, PrEP clubs for social support will also be established and young female government workers will be trained to help increase adherence.

This five-year study is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The study will be conducted in collaboration with the South African Departments of Health and Social Development. The RTI study team will also work with the Tshwane District Health Services of HIV/AIDS/STI/TB clinics, a Community Collaborative Board, and the Wesley Community Centre. Other partners include UNC’s Population Council Center and UNC’s Center for AIDS Research.

“If the multi-level, comprehensive woman-focused intervention for PrEP uptake and adherence demonstrates efficacy, it could provide a valuable complement to the HIV prevention plan of the government of South Africa and help reduce new HIV infections among vulnerable adolescent girls and young women,” Wechsberg said.

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