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The weakest women pay

· Higher risk of HIV infection with hormonal contraceptives ·

The most used contraceptive in sub-Saharan Africa doubles the risk of contracting the HIV virus, according to scientific research published in the medical journal, The Lancet , on October 4th. International organizations, however, have not taken the research into account and continue to administer the pharmaceutical to African women, despite the proven risks. Confirmation that the health of women in the third world is not their first priority.

The statistics of the rigorous scientific study speak clearly: in couples in which one partner is HIV-positive, a woman’s use of the hormonal contraceptive, Depo-Provera, produced by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and administered by injection, doubles the probability that the healthy partner will contract the virus: the percentage of infected women rises to 6.61% in one year, compared to 3.78%, while for men, the probability goes from 1.51% to 2.61%.

The study, conducted for the prestigious journal by an international team financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, followed 3,790 couples for two consecutive years, conducting clinical tests every three months. The couples come from countries with a high percentage of the population infected by AIDS: Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. At the beginning of the study, at least one of the partners was HIV-positive. The contagion was doubled in couples who used birth control through the administration of hormones.

Depo-Provera is widely used in Africa, thanks to its practicality: it is taken only once every three months, without the assistance of a doctor, elements which by-pass the often difficult problem of travel on a continent with very few qualified medical structures. Around 12 million African women between 15 and 49 years old (6%) use this contraceptive method. Depo-Provera is also widespread in the West: 13% of women in the United States use the hormonal contraceptive.

The results of the recently published study are not new: in August, Jennifer Kimball, Director of the Culture of Life Foundation and Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute, affirmed that in the third world, methods of birth control based on hormone treatments increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. The biologist, Daniel Kuebler of Franciscan University of Steubenville, confirms that it is not surprising that hormone treatments should have serious undesired effects, as in this case. It is to be hoped, therefore, that other rigorous studies will be conducted on other types of hormonal contraceptives.

Isobel Coleman, Director of Women and Foreign Policy Program of the Council on Foreign Relations is very clear: the international community is faced with a first-order crisis in the challenge of health of the population of the third world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions of the United Nations, however, do not seem to be of the same opinion. “We want to make sure that we warn when there is a real need to warn,” said Mary Lyn Gaffield, a WHO epidemiologist, in the New York Times. Many commentators have called the WHO’s silence scandalous: there has been no official communication nor any action taken to inform the millions of African women who are unaware of the risk they are taking. The promise to study the question in depth at a conference to be held in January, demonstrates that when it comes to women’s health, the WHO and pharmaceutical companies – including Pfizer who refused to comment – continue to use different weights and different measures for the third world.

In 2005, as Susan Yoshihara points out, when the first scientific results showed a relation between hormonal contraceptives and the spread of HIV, the WHO responded with a document affirming that, “the benefits of using [contraceptives] to prevent unintended pregnancy would, in the majority of cases, offset any excess risk of acquiring HIV.” A statement without any rigorous scientific basis which definitively leaves weak women of the world to pay the price of ideologies of population control and pharmaceutical profits.

Once again, science which is independent of economic interests demonstrates that the road to elevating women’s dignity and to resolving the grave situation of health in developing countries is that of promoting education in natural practices of fertility regulation: a 2007 German study published in the Oxford journal, Human Reproduction , (22, 5. pp. 1310-1319) has already amply demonstrated that these methods are much more effective than pharmaceutical ones. And more than once, Benedict XVI has indicated the way, speaking of development in third world countries: promote a culture which puts women and men at the center, as free individuals and bearers of infinite dignity.

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