New vaginal gel helps protect women from AIDS

Researchers announced yesterday that a new gel produced by Gilead Sciences has provided protection to women in South Africa from the AIDS virus, preventing them from being infected.

In what is likely the biggest breakthrough in almost 30 years of AIDS research, scientists at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna revealed that the gel, made from the company’s drug tenofovir, when used regularly by South African women, cut the risk of HIV infection by 50 percent after one year’s use and 39 percent after 2 1/2 years, compared to a gel that was essentially a placebo.

Researchers agree that these results need to be confirmed in an additional study and that, though exciting, the results aren’t likely to win the microbicide gel approval in countries like the United States.

Licensing in the US means a gel or cream to prevent HIV infection may need to be at least 80 percent effective, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.That level of success could be achieved, he said, either by adding more tenofovir to the gel or by having women use the gel more consistently. The study showed that women only used the gel 60 percent of the time; while those who used it more often had higher rates of protection.

Adding to the excitement was the news that the gel also cut the chances of getting the HSV-2 virus – the virus that causes genital herpes – by 50 percent.  The spread of other sexually spread diseases increases the risk of catching HIV.

Although different countries will come to their own decisions about licensing this gel, in South Africa,  where one in three girls is infected with HIV by age 20, this gel could prevent 1.3 million infections and 826,000 deaths over the next two decades, Fauci said.

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