The hottest news yet out of the International AIDS Conference was the announcement of the first vaginal gel that can protect women against HIV during sex. South African researchers got a standing ovation and cheering from the overflow crowd of more than 1,000 with the report that women who used the microbicide gel had a 39 percent lower chance of becoming infected with HIV, compared to women on placebo. The results follow a long string of disappointments from previous microbicide trials, including some with gels that increased the risk of infection, noted Stanford's Andrew Zolopa, MD, an AIDS researcher.
"I think the results of the study are very encouraging," Zolopa said just after the announcement. "You could see from the reaction that people have been waiting a long time for an effective microbicide. This puts power into the hands of the woman, so it's very important."
The study involved 899 sexually active women, all HIV-free, living in two districts of South Africa. Half got the gel containing 1 percent tenofovir, a commonly used antiretroviral drug made by Gilead Sciences in Foster City, Ca. The women used the gel, contained in an applicator, up to 12 hours before having sex and again within 12 hours afterwards. Only 38 who used the gel became HIV-infected, while among those on placebo, 60 became infected with the virus, epidemiologist Quarraisha Abdool Karim, PhD, said in presenting the results.
The results are of particular significance in South Africa, which has the highest HIV infection rate in the world. In one of the districts where the gel was tested, more than half the women in the 23-24 age bracket are HIV-positive, Karim said.
Aaron Motsoaledi, MD, South Africa's Minister of Health, championed the results. "Regardless of the whims of the men, young women now can take their lives in their own hands," he said. He noted men have several options for protecting themselves against HIV, including condoms and circumcision, "but many women don't have a say in that."
The scientists said the gel still isn't ready for market. They plan to do confirmatory studies and will have to go through a regulatory process before it will become widely available.
Results of the study became available online today in Science. The work was supported by the USAID and Family Health International. Gilead provided the drug for the study.
Ruthann Richter is a Scope contributor and writer in the medical school's communication office. She is attending the International AIDS Conference in Vienna and is posting periodic updates on the happenings there. You can see all of her updates in our HIV/AIDS category.