Stealth HIV Prevention: Microbicides

Nearly 10 years ago I wrote a cover story for POZ Magazine about microbicides -- the gels, lotions, foams or suppositories that could help women protect themselves from STDS, like HIV. At the time, the reality of such an antidote to HIV was just emerging from scientific buzz into a potential reality. But the dearth of research monies was still an obstacle potentially dashing the hopes that one day women, especially those in Asia and Africa who have increasingly higher HIV infection rates, could employ a stealth defense against infection without relying on their partners willingness (rather unwillingness) to wear condoms.

It was a heartbreaking story in many ways, especially hearing the stories from women like Sara from Zimbabwe, who after she got a STD from her husband, received a beating when she asked him to wear a condom. Then there were the statistics from Thailand: a study in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes that reported 76 percent of HIV positive women said that their only sexual contact was with their husbands. 

All this made the possibility of a prevention measure controlled by women even more appealing.Now we are step closer to seeing a microbicide approved for widespread use. According to news reports in Africa and Asia, a team of researchers in South Africa are entering a final trial of a gel that in an earlier, much smaller study reduced HIV transmission rates to 39% and halved the risk of contracting genital herpes.

Head researcher Helen Rees, director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (WRHI) in South Africa, has said the results of the new study could prove the gel to be even more effective with this being a larger, well-funded study. And if all goes well, we may see a microbicide for sale in 2014. A lubricating bonus: Rees said, "the big message we got is that women like it." 

Photo courtesy of the International Partnership for Microbicides

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