Safety and continued use of the levonorgestrel intrauterine system as compared with the copper intrauterine device among women living with HIV in South Africa: A randomized controlled trial

PLoS Med. 2020 May 22;17(5):e1003110. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003110. eCollection 2020 May.


Background: Women living with HIV (WLHIV) have lower rates of contraceptive use than noninfected peers, yet concerns regarding contraceptive efficacy and interaction with antiretroviral therapy (ART) complicate counseling. Hormonal contraceptives may increase genital tract HIV viral load (gVL) and sexual transmission risk to male partners. We compared gVL, plasma VL (pVL), and intrauterine contraceptive (IUC) continuation between the levonorgestrel intrauterine system (LNG-IUS) and copper intrauterine device (C-IUD) in Cape Town, South Africa.

Methods and findings: In this double-masked, randomized controlled noninferiority trial, eligible WLHIV were ages 18-40, not pregnant or desiring pregnancy within 30 months, screened and treated (as indicated) for reproductive tract infections (RTIs) within 1 month of enrollment, and virologically suppressed using ART or above treatment threshold at enrollment (non-ART). Between October 2013, and December 2016, we randomized consenting women within ART groups, using 1:1 permuted block randomization stratified by ART use, age (18-23, 24-31, 32-40), and recent injectable progestin contraceptive (IPC) exposure, and provided the allocated IUC. At all visits, participants provided specimens for gVL (primary outcome), pVL, RTI, and pregnancy testing. We assessed gVL and pVL across 6 and 24 months controlling for enrollment measures, ART group, age, and RTI using generalized estimating equation and generalized linear models (non-ART group pVL and hemoglobin) in as-treated analyses. We measured IUC discontinuation rates with Kaplan-Meier estimates and Cox proportional hazards models. We enrolled 71 non-ART (36 LNG-IUS, 31 C-IUD; 2 declined and 2 were ineligible) and 134 ART-using (65 LNG-IUS, 67 C-IUD; 1 declined and 1 could not complete IUC insertion) women. Participant median age was 31 years, and 95% had 1 or more prior pregnancies. Proportions of women with detectable gVL were not significantly different comparing LNG-IUS to C-IUD across 6 (adjusted odds ratio [AOR]: 0.78, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.44-1.38, p = 0.39) and 24 months (AOR: 1.03, 95% CI: 0.68-1.57, p = 0.88). Among ART users, proportions with detectable pVL were not significantly different at 6 (AOR = 0.83, 95% CI 0.37-1.86, p = 0.65) and 24 months (AOR = 0.94, 95% CI 0.49-1.81, p = 0.85), whereas among non-ART women, mean pVL was not significantly different at 6 months (-0.10 log10 copies/mL, 95% CI -0.29 to 0.10, p = 0.50) between LNG-IUS and C-IUD users. IUC continuation was 78% overall; C-IUD users experienced significantly higher expulsion (8% versus 1%, p = 0.02) and elective discontinuation (adjusted hazard ratio: 8.75, 95% CI 3.08-24.8, p < 0.001) rates. Sensitivity analysis adjusted for differential IUC discontinuation found similar gVL results. There were 39 serious adverse events (SAEs); SAEs believed to be directly related to IUC use (n = 7) comprised 3 pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) cases and 4 pregnancies with IUC in place with no discernible trend by IUC arm. Mean hemoglobin change was significantly higher among LNG-IUS users across 6 (0.57 g/dL, 95% CI 0.24-0.90; p < 0.001) and 24 months (0.71 g/dL, 95% CI 0.47-0.95; p < 0.001). Limitations included not achieving non-ART group sample size following change in ART treatment guidelines and truncated 24 months' outcome data, as 17 women were not yet eligible for their 24-month visit at study closure. Also, a change in VL assay during the study may have caused some discrepancy in VL values because of different limits of detection.

Conclusions: In this study, we found that the LNG-IUS did not increase gVL or pVL and had low levels of contraceptive failure and associated PID compared with the C-IUD among WLHIV. LNG-IUS users were significantly more likely to continue IUC use and had higher hemoglobin levels over time. The LNG-IUS appears to be a safe contraceptive with regard to HIV disease and may be a highly acceptable option for WLHIV.

Trial registration: NCT01721798.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Contraceptive Agents, Female / adverse effects*
  • Contraceptive Agents, Female / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • HIV Infections* / drug therapy
  • HIV Infections* / etiology
  • Humans
  • Intrauterine Devices, Copper / adverse effects*
  • Levonorgestrel / adverse effects*
  • Levonorgestrel / therapeutic use
  • Male
  • South Africa
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult


  • Contraceptive Agents, Female
  • Levonorgestrel

Associated data