There was a big step forward this week in the struggle to contain the spread of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Reporting on a three-year study in the journal Science, scientists at the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) say that a microbicidal gel reduced HIV infection rates in women who used it by 39 percent over the course of the study. It would be the first time such a gel has proven so effective. The researchers gathered nearly 900 women for the study who were HIV-free but demographically at risk for infection. Half received the gel, half a similar-looking but inactive substance. Among those given the gel, a vaginally-administered substance that contained an antiretroviral medication called tenofovir, infection rate fell by half after a year, and were reduced by 39 percent over two and a half years.
"This is very encouraging," said Dr. Michel Sidibe, executive director of Unaids, the United Nations AIDS-fighting agency. "It can be controlled by women, and put in 12 hours earlier, and that is empowering. They do not have to ask the man for permission to use it. And the cost of the gel is not high" [The New York Times].
Though subsequent trials will of course be needed, these first results are especially inspiring given the predicament of women in some of these nations.
Women fall victim to HIV/Aids in disproportionately large numbers – 60% of new infections in Africa are among women. Many in the poorest countries have little education and suffer from very low status, so are unable to negotiate safe sex, using a condom, with their partner [The Guardian].
Salim Abdool Karim, one of the study authors, said the product would cost women "just pennies," which is crucial because the effectiveness goes up with the consistency of use.
"Boy, have we been doing the happy dance," Dr Karim, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, said [BBC News].
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