After twenty years of research and many failed attempts, researchers have finally discovered a vaginal gel that will help reduce the risk of HIV infection in women by half. The announcement was made at the outset of the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria and marks the beginning of the end of 11 previously failed clinical trials of six different agents that researchers hoped would stop the spread of HIV to women with infected partners.
The vaginal gel containing tenofovir, an anti-HIV drug sold as Viread by Gilead Sciences Inc., is the first of its kind to protect against infection of the AIDS virus. A husband and wife team, Quarraisha Abdool Kareem, PhD and Salim S. Abdool Karim, PhD, MD, of the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa and Columbia University, announced their findings at the conference. Dr. Quarraisha stated:
“We now have a product that can potentially alter the epidemic … and save millions of lives by averting HIV infection.”
Although the new drug won’t provide full protection from HIV infection, it is a huge step for women, particularly those living in rural South Africa. For example, Dr. Quarraisha asked the audience to imagine a young woman in rural South Africa whose partner is a migrant worker who refuses to use a condom and will not allow her to use the female condom.
“Picture [that woman] asking what I have to offer to prevent her from getting infected with HIV. Until today I had nothing to offer. Today that changes. I can now offer tenofovir gel that offers 39% protection. And if she is highly adherent, it can be up to 54% protection.”
To provide an idea of the impact of the gel on reducing the spread of HIV, Dr. Quarraisha stated that if 1 in 3 South African women at risk of HIV infection used the gel, over 20 years there would be 1.3 million fewer HIV infections and 820,000 lives would be saved.
The gel is applied to the vaginal area 12 hours before sex and 12 hours after. While the gel should be applied only once every 24 hours, the gel should still theoretically protect a woman from infection who has sex more than once a day. Furthermore, there is an additional benefit to using the gel since it also protects against the spread of genital herpes.