The scene in July 2010 in Vienna was one of my most electric moments in covering science. I happened to grab a front row seat at the International AIDS Conference for a much-anticipated announcement by two South African scientists about a new HIV prevention method. The room was packed, with a standing-room only crowd, when the scientists presented data from a study of 900 women showing that a vaginal gel, armed with an antiretroviral drug, had proved to block HIV transmission, lowering a woman’s chance of infection by 39 percent.
The reaction was instantaneous; people rose to their feet, clapped and cheered. I had never seen such a wild display of enthusiasm at a science conference. The response was understandable; at past conferences, notable figures in the HIV and philanthropic world, including Melinda Gates, had emphasized the importance of finding a microbicide that could be used by women help protect themselves against infection (the Gates Foundation has invested millions in the quest for such a product). Yet until that moment in July, there had been nothing but disappointments in the field.
Today, the husband-and-wife team who developed the method, epidemiologists Salim Abdool Karim, PhD, and Quarraisha Abdool Karim, PhD, will receive the first Olusegun Obasanjo Prize from the African Academy of Sciences. It’s an honor well-deserved.