Eliminating AIDS in Rwanda, one woman at a time

| October 26, 2011 | 0 Comments
Rwandan women in Kigali attend an information session on microbicide trials.

Rwandan women in Kigali attend an information session on microbicide trials.

About 70 Rwandan women have been volunteer subjects since 2004 in a medical project to prevent HIV/AIDS, and, at the same time, to change attitudes toward the disease.
About three per cent of Rwanda’s population carries HIV, but knowledge about the disease and its prevention is sparse. As well, going public is a tough choice in a socially conservative society.
Uwineza Ariane, 34, is among the women enrolled for the two successive trials of a microbicide called Dapivirine gel and ring. The gel lasts 24 hours inside the vagina, and the ring lasts an entire month. Both combat the HIV virus. Ms Ariane decided to participate and go public to ensure that the drug trial benefitted her whole community, the Gitega district of Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
“As a nurse, I participated to calm down doubts from neighbours’ husbands, who didn’t understand what their wives were telling them. Men started to come to me, and asked me all about the microbicides because I was someone they thought knew a lot.”
Many women who enrolled for the tests found it difficult to talk with their husbands about it.
Eugenie Mukabisangwa, 36, who lives in the Kicukiro District in Kigali City, is among them. She says, “It’s not that easy, as you have first to talk about it with your husband. When I told him, he agreed to go with me the next day to get more information.” For Mukabisangwa, the talk worked, but it was difficult to tell her husband she had talked about sex with another person — in a traditional society people just don’t do that. And she felt she needed permission from her husband to take part in the trial.
Public exposure was difficult, as well,  for Naweniwe Zamida, 29, when she enrolled for the tests. Her neighbours assumed incorrectly she was HIV-positive because she was involved with the research.
“I am not infected by HIV/AIDS. But I’m proud of being part of a test of a medicine that could prevent it — this is what pushed me into the tests.” Every woman we interviewed who was undergoing the tests said she wanted the chance to be tested gynecologically with up-to-date techniques like colposcopy — an examination of an illuminated, magnified view of the cervix and vagina and vulva for malignant growths.
“It was the first time I was tested by colposcopy. I thought it was only done in foreign countries,” Zamida says. “I was also surprised when Project Ubuzima (the name means “health” in the local language, Kinyarwanda) took care of a woman who had infections that barred her from the trials.” The project does that for any women who apply, but who suffer from other gynecological diseases.
The gel-and-ring project is a regional version of the International Partnership for Microbicide (IPM). Starting in 2004, it has been aiming to change attitudes toward sexually transmitted disease among the population at large, and recruited an initial 71 volunteer women to test the drug.
According to a 2009 UNAIDS report, sub-Saharan Africa had 22.4 million people living with the HIV/AIDS, the highest rate in the world. And women are the most vulnerable.
Rwanda is one of the African countries testing the new generation of microbicide gels and rings, and the population has been the target of government programs about its benefits.
A typical Project Ubuzima information session in Kigali’s Kicukiro District had about 60 people with women outnumbering men two to one. Everyone wanted to know whether the man could feel the gel during sex. Ms. Zamida spoke up, saying, “My husband said that he can’t feel anything different, there’s no harm or bother.” After she spoke, it looked like most of the men at the meeting were no longer worried.
Dr. Joseph Byankandondera, a researcher with the project, says the gel is usually preferred more than the ring.
He said the fact that women can use the gel on their own means they get a chance to protect themselves, even if their partner refuses any method of protection, an attitude he considers common in a society where men expect women to obey them, no matter what.
Dr. Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, the minister of gender and family, agrees. “In Africa, when it comes to sexual intercourse, men decide whether and when. The miracle from this medicine is that women will have the ability to choose whether to protect themselves, as was not the case for several methods that have been used before,” she says.
As well, she says, this project could be part of a solution for a society where rape and similar crimes against women are increasing. A woman inserts the gel into her vagina daily as part of her toilette. The ring can be inserted for as long as a month.
Project Ubuzima’s public awareness campaign is multi-faceted. Evelyne Kestelyn, another project researcher, says they assess community knowledge about HIV/AIDS, and organize visits to health centres and clinics devoted to sexually transmitted diseases. Social workers talk about the trial with men, take the message to women’s associations and NGOs, and brief local leaders about the trials.
The PR leader of the project, Marie Michele Umulisa, says the mission has reached a stage where there are “no problems enrolling women. Instead, what we needed was appropriate communication. We are in a stage where women come to us wishing to be tested, because they understood the impact it has on them for the future.”
Most women are eligible to take part, unless they test positive for HIV/AIDS. Participation is voluntary and the project provides them with about $10 to cover the time lost to consultation and travel to the clinic.
Women are impatient to get the drug. “We needed a medicine we can use with our own preference, because there are partners who deny any kind of protection,” says Gertrude Mukayiranga, 43, president of an association of HIV-positive women. “Other methods of preventing AIDS do not interest women because they are sometimes hard to practise, or men can discover that you used them without their approval. We need this medicine on the market with a cheap price as soon as possible.” The trial is expected to be completed by the end of 2012.
On the other side, some say the microbicide could mean more infidelity. “I believe people should abstain from having sex with people who are not their spouse,” says Bernard Gatore, a leader of a Christian community in Huye District, Southern Province, who also heard about the project over the radio. But, he says, “I would go for the microbicide only in cases of rape.”
And one local leader says the microbicide could reduce harm in unconventional households. Hope Placide Mwiseneza, the executive secretary of Kigali’s Gikondo Sector, says, “One of my sector’s districts is notorious for its numbers of sex workers. I think it will help them in their daily business without contracting AIDS.”
As the microbicide is still in the trials, no official results are available yet but Project Ubuzima, a similar South African project, has said it expects the microbicides to reduce the number of infections by 90 per cent in users. And the drug used in the gel (Dapivirine) in Rwanda is considered more effective than the Tenofovir used in South Africa.

Maurice Twahirwa is a Rwandan journalist.

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