As part of its $1 billion effort to make contraceptives more accessible to women in the developing world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is joining with a pharmaceutical company and other aid groups to produce and distribute a simpler version of an old drug.
The injectable contraceptive Depo-Provera has long been a favorite of women in Africa and Asia. But getting the shots can require a lengthy journey to a clinic or hospital where a skilled health worker must draw the drug into a syringe and inject it deep in a muscle.
In its new incarnation, called Sayana Press, the drug is packaged in a syringe that consists of a plastic bubble attached to a needle. Administering the drug requires only a shallow jab and a squeeze of the bubble — a process so easy it can be done by minimally trained workers in villages and even in women’s homes.
“The real genius of this product is that it’s so simple,” said Michael Anderson, CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), a U.K.-based philanthropy.
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The Gates Foundation, CIFF and other groups will subsidize production of Sanya Press by the drug company Pfizer, which has agreed to sell it to governments and groups like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for $1 per three-month dose.
The drug will then be made available to women in 69 of the world’s poorest countries at little or no cost, said a Gates Foundation spokeswoman.
Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, made family planning one of the Gates Foundation’s highest priorities in 2012. The world’s richest philanthropy committed to spending $1 billion to make contraceptives available to another 120 million women in the developing world by 2020.
“When women have access to the means to time and space their pregnancies in a healthy way, we see improvements in maternal health, child health and in the economic prosperity of nations,” said Chris Elias, Gates Foundation global development chief, in a media briefing Thursday.
With funding from the Gates Foundation and others, PATH is overseeing a pilot project to introduce Sayana Press in the African nations of Niger, Burkina Faso, Uganda and Senegal.
In Burkina Faso, where the pilot started, nearly 6,000 women opted to try Sayana Press, said Jennifer Drake, PATH’s assistant project director. In some rural districts, up to 75 percent of those women were using contraceptives for the first time.
“Many women in rural areas face obstacles to accessing family planning, because they have to walk to health clinics,” Drake said.
Injectable contraceptives like Depo-Provera are in high demand because they last for months and are discreet, Drake said. That means women can use birth control without the knowledge of family members who might object.
But with a “wholesale” cost to governments and aid agencies of about 75 cents a dose, conventional Depo-Provera remains cheaper than the new version, which currently sells for about $1.50 a dose.
Lowering the price of Sayana Press to $1 a dose makes the equation more favorable, but it’s not clear if the price will ever be lower than the conventional form of the drug, Drake said.
Elias said the Gates Foundation and others will support wider introduction of Sayana Press, and will also help train workers to administer the shots. USAID is also a partner in the project.
The Gates Foundation is sponsoring a series of trials in Africa to see if it’s practical and feasible for women to inject themselves in the privacy of their own homes.
Neither the Gates Foundation nor Pfizer would provide financial details on their new agreement. According to its website, the Gates Foundation has previously committed about $20 million to projects that promote the use of Sayana Press, including about $10 million for the self-injection study.
Sayana Press is not licensed for use in the United States.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491