Women Deliver: Harnessing technology to empower women

While maternal, reproductive and newborn health health have remained chronically neglected issues, innovative technologies have emerged during the 21st century which could dramatically improve access to and quality of care for women in the developing world.

On June 8, Women Deliver is holding a special one-day technology symposium entitled '50 years after the pill - the revolution continues'. The underlying theory is that emerging technology can be harnessed in a creative and groundbreaking way to address persistent reproductive and maternal health issues for women and girls worldwide.

Some important new technologies in women’s health include: new ways to stop bleeding after childbirth; cervical screening and prevention tools; mobile technology to improve maternal health in resource restrained countries; new contraceptive methods from gels and sprays to contraceptive methods for men; and women-initiated HIV prevention tools.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, women account for nearly two thirds of estimated HIV infections and women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV/AIDS for a multitude of reasons, both cultural and biological.

But new antiretroviral-based microbicides hold the promise of long-lasting and discreet HIV prevention for women that would not require the consent of a partner or husband. Trials of microbicides in various forms are currently underway.

A new vaginal ring formulation utilizes a popular contraceptive method to provide a gradual release of microbicides over a period of one month; on the horizon, there are plans to combine such HIV prevention technologies with contraceptive technologies, providing women in the developing world new options for prevention and agency and prevention.

Discussing new promises in women-initiated HIV prevention, Dr Zeda Rosenberg, CEO of the International Partnership for Microbicides, announced the launch of a clinical trial in Southern and Eastern Africa testing the safety and acceptability of a vaginal ring containing an antiretroviral drug. This tool could one day empower women by providing long-lasting, discreet protection from HIV during sex.

HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide yet women in developing countries do not have the tools they need to protect themselves. The new vaginal ring study borrows from birth control to develop a novel tool for HIV prevention.

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, CEO of Vestergaard Frandsen, said public-private partnerships are addressing public health challenges in Kenya where Vestergaard Frandsen, the program sponsor, has partnered with the Kenyan Ministry of Health. The integrated campaign combines voluntary HIV counselling and testing (VCT) with distribution of an evidence-based CarePack containing multiple interventions for the prevention of malaria, diarrhoea and HIV.

People attending the campaign are offered HIV counselling and testing services, health education and a free CarePack containing a PermaNet long-lasting insecticidal net, a LifeStraw family point-of-use water purifier, condoms and educational material about preventing malaria, diarrhoea and HIV. People who are diagnosed with HIV are referred for further care and given a three-month starter kit of cotrimoxazole prophylaxis, a broad spectrum antibiotic recommended by the WHO.

Nearly 50,000 people have participated in the community-based voluntary HIV testing. This campaign has had an impact on MDG Goal 6 (Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases) and MDG goal 7 (Ensure environmental sustainability – halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation).

This is a novel concept showing that by working together to deliver multiple disease prevention initiatives, time and costs can be dramatically reduced. Additionally, the unique integrated approach, targeting HIV, malaria and water-borne diseases, provides health authorities with information that can lead to more multi-disease prevention approaches.

Women Deliver is pushing donors to commit an additional US $12 billion in funding each year for maternal, reproductive and newborn health, which would include funding and access to such new technologies.

Even though these technologies are being developed, they do not often reach the women who need them most. Political will and financial commitment can change that.

Ishdeep Kohli-CNS