Mapping Pathways is a multi-national project to develop and nurture a research-driven, community-led global understanding of the emerging evidence base around the adoption of antiretroviral-based prevention strategies to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The evidence base is more than results from clinical trials - it must include stakeholder and community perspectives as well.

15 January 2013

Providing a range of prevention options: In conversation with Linda-Gail Bekker

Original content from our Mapping Pathways blog team

We need options. Not everyone in the world is a good pill taker. Like so many things in life, we may realise that people need different prevention options since they have different personalities.

In the final part of this five-part series, Linda-Gail Bekker of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, a Mapping Pathways partner organisation, speaks about the importance of adherence, both in clinical trials and the real world, and the challenges and issues facing adolescents. Read parts one, two, three and four

MP: You have mentioned adolescents as a particular vulnerable group in South Africa. In an interview conducted earlier this year, your colleague, Dr. Melissa Wallace, also talked about adolescents as an especially at-risk group. What are some factors that make them so vulnerable?

LGB: One particular reason why adolescents are highly at risk for HIV is because many are at the stage of their lives where they may be experimenting with their sexuality. They may also find themselves in relationships where negotiating condoms may be incredibly difficult.

This maybe the case with younger women whose relationships can be with older men and young MSM outing themselves for the first time and who may then choose to go out with older men.  In that situation, being able to use a PrEP tablet discreetly and under their own control could be a life-saving step.

So putting prevention into the hands of the vulnerable becomes a very important tool. But we can only do this if we are sure it’s safe in this population, which requires carefully run clinical research in order to adequately test the product in the relevant populations.

This requires resources and investment from sponsors and funding agencies even though this is often regarded as “high risk investment”. In that regard, I’m delighted that we’ll be starting an MP3 project (methods of prevention) based on a grant awarded to us by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to look at PrEP and other biomedical prevention modalities in adolescents between 14-17 years old.

MP: Adherence is an issue that has come up quite a bit this year, from M2012 to AIDS 2012. How much are people talking about adherence and about taking lessons learned from trials into the real world?

LGB: Adherence is the Achilles heel of the HIV prevention and treatment worlds. This is where biology meets behavior. We know that the pill is efficacious – Partners PrEP showed that beautifully. In fact, every single one of the clinical trials has shown that once adherence increases there is a direct correlation with efficacy in the results. Starting with the 39% in the CAPRISA study leading on to 44% in the iPrEx study and going on to an astounding 75% in the Partners PrEP study – each one had an increased overall adherence rate and with this an increase in point efficacy, so the correlation appears to be a real phenomenon.

In addition, the sub-studies done in every trial showed that high adherers within a study had a better efficacy compared to the lower adherers. So we can quite confidently say there is a robust relationship between adherence and efficacy.

So how do we get people to adhere? Motivations play a great role. Partners PrEP which enrolled discordant couples had a great in-built motivation that one was protecting a loved one by taking the pill, which may be the reason we saw particularly high adherence for that population.

I think we also need to understand that not everybody in this world is a good pill-taker. There will be those who just cannot bring themselves to swallow pills on a daily basis. So PrEP may not be a very good idea for them. In that situation, maybe a rectal microbicide or a microbicide that’s part of a lubricant may work very well for that individual.

We need options. If we get to that stage in the future where other prevention technologies are available, like getting a shot in the arm that lasts three months, then we need that option on the table too. Like so many things in life, we may realise that people need different prevention options since they have different personalities.

MP: What are some of your final thoughts on what needs to happen to stem the HIV epidemic?

LGB: We need to have conversations on several different levels: ethical, scientific, public health, politics and priorities. Different countries and communities will be at different places. Some of the hard questions are : Who pays? How will we implement this prevention strategy? Is this strategy for the generalised epidemic or is it only for selected key populations? Who are the key populations? What are the social factors that make them vulnerable? Is this ethical? Does it make sound public health sense? What wont be afforded if we go this route? Who will benefit if we do?

Those are all very hard questions but they deserve to be asked and certainly require ongoing dialogue. This brings us back to the Mapping Pathway- we have been contributing to the dialogue through this project. We also need to do the modeling exercises and implement some feasibility type projects and then continue to raise more questions., It’s a wonderful thing that we are at a point where we can actually have these conversations. They are not hypothetical questions anymore. It is urgent to have these discussions in such a way that the next steps become clear and infections can be averted before too much more time is lost.

Linda-Gail Bekker is deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town. She also serves as the chief operating officer of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, a Mapping Pathways partner organisation. 

Stay tuned for the Mapping Pathways monograph, coming in early 2013

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