Hormonal Contraception and HIV-1 Acquisition: Biological Mechanisms
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Access to effective affordable contraception is critical for individual and public health. A wide range of hormonal contraceptives (HCs), which differ in composition, concentration of the progestin component, frequency of dosage, and method of administration, is currently available globally. However, the options are rather limited in settings with restricted economic resources that frequently overlap with areas of high HIV-1 prevalence. The predominant contraceptive used in sub-Saharan Africa is the progestin-only three-monthly injectable depot medroxyprogesterone acetate. Determination of whether HCs affect HIV-1 acquisition has been hampered by behavioral differences potentially confounding clinical observational data. Meta-analysis of these studies shows a significant association between depot medroxyprogesterone acetate use and increased risk of HIV-1 acquisition, raising important concerns. No association was found for combined oral contraceptives containing levonorgestrel, nor for the two-monthly injectable contraceptive norethisterone enanthate, although data for norethisterone enanthate are limited. Susceptibility to HIV-1 and other sexually transmitted infections may, however, be dependent on the type of progestin present in the formulation. Several underlying biological mechanisms that may mediate the effect of HCs on HIV-1 and other sexually transmitted infection acquisition have been identified in clinical, animal, and ex vivo studies. A substantial gap exists in the translation of basic research into clinical practice and public health policy. To bridge this gap, we review the current knowledge of underlying mechanisms and biological effects of commonly used progestins. The review sheds light on issues critical for an informed choice of progestins for the identification of safe, effective, acceptable, and affordable contraceptive methods.