This week's feature story details some fascinating research from the University of Washington about a suspected link between HIV and the birth control shot Depo-Provera. While the contraception is most popular in sub-Saharan Africa, there are a few local connections that should give Seattle residents pause.
"A lot of it is they don't think they're at risk," says Renee McCoy, a prevention specialist at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance. "What happens is that people just don't think they have a reason to be tested. They don't think they're at risk, or they know they're at risk but don't want to be tested and don't want to find out. A lot people just don't want to know. It's a disease that's stigmatized."
Between 1992 and 1996, it was the leading cause of death in King County for people ages 22 to 44. By the end of the decade, improved education initiatives and access to anti-retroviral drugs had helped stem the tide. Today, fewer than 30 King County residents per year die of AIDS.The Sightline Institute (a local think tank) did some fascinating analysis on HIV's impact on life expectancy in the Emerald City, and concluded that the disease dramatically reduced the life expectancy for Seattle residents in the late '80s and early '90s. That has since changed, and the average Seattle dweller lives to the ripe old age of 83.
Sadly, the people of Africa are far less fortunate. In most countries, the average life expectancy is about 50 years. Children there are 20 times more likely to perish prematurely than in industrialized nations, and HIV is one of the main reasons why: the virus is responsible for 8 percent of all under-age-5 deaths in the region, according to UNICEF.
Sub-Saharan Africa's tragically high child and maternal mortality rates are two of the main reasons global health organizations have made contraception a point of emphasis. And because injectables like Depo-Provera (the brand name for Pfizer's birth control shot) are cheap, effective and easily administered, they have become the birth control method of choice for millions of African women -- nearly 12 million, according to recent estimates.
In Seattle, the drug is available but not nearly so popular. Kristen Glundberg-Prossor, spokeswoman for Northwest Planned Parenthood, says the organization administered 6,064 Depo injections last year, about 7 percent of the total birth control methods they provided. The cost of the shot is based on a sliding scale that ranges from free to $90.
"A lot of people prefer Depo," Glundberg-Prossor says. "We have conversations with people to help them figure out the best contraceptive method for them. In these cases, they opt to use [Depo] primarily because it's long-lasting, they don't have to take a pill, and don't have to have an IUD implanted."
Both Glundberg-Prossor and the UW researchers behind the Depo/HIV study caution that the new research should not scare people away from using an otherwise safe and effective form of contraception. But if those women are engaging in behaviors that put them at-risk of contracting HIV, it is imperative that they use a condom.