New gel kills HIV cells

Professor Helen Rees of the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand said in a statement to the media that microbicides are crucial in reducing the spread of HIV/Aids, especially in Africa, where women now account for more than 60 percent of infected adults aged 15 to 49 years. “For young women, the figures are even worse. In South Africa, one in four women aged 15 to 24 years is infected with HIV, compared to one in 14 young men.” Wits are currently testing a vaginal gel that could help prevent the transmission of HIV/Aids. The latest microbicide research findings were presented at the fourth international microbicides conference in Cape Town from April 23 to April 26 this month. Apart from the gel, other preventative measures may come in the form of a cream, a sponge or a ring that will contain active ingredients in a slow-release format, which will be able to kill or deactivate HIV cells during sexual intercourse, said Rees. “Up to now, the most prominent prevention strategy has been the ABC approach (Abstinence, Being faithful, and using Condoms), but this needs to be expanded to address the needs of the many people who cannot adopt these strategies. “However, microbicides are not only being developed for use by women. Several trials are currently underway in the United States and Europe to evaluate the possibility of developing an effective microbicide for men who have sex with men,” said Rees. Rees said that microbicides have been in existence for more than 10 years. “We do need to have other types of technology that are not condoms that can be used for HIV prevention. Even amongst the gay community there is also a need.” However, the gel used to protect the rectum is technically more difficult than a vaginal cream, said Rees. “But nonetheless, these studies are ongoing.” She also said that in certain communities women lack the power to insist upon condom usage. The products that have been tested in South Africa have only been in the form of a gel. But while there’s “growing excitement (about) these products, we’re not going to have it on the shelves next year. If we are optimistic and if we can show that this product can indeed work, we’ll see it in the next five years,” said Rees. With an estimated 40 people dying from HIV/Aids every hour in South Africa or about 350 000 per year, the vaginal gel, or any other product for that matter, is sure to be welcomed. Professor Gita Ramjee of the South African Medical Research Council said in a statement that it is hoped the products will not only reduce infection amongst women, but that it will have a bi-directional effect where the transmission of HIV can be prevented from male to female and female to male. “The microbicides tested could be contraceptive or non-contraceptive. This will give the women the choice to conceive without the fear of HIV infection, said Ramjee. She explained: “While the early products were designed to kill the virus, newer products are targeting the attachment of the virus to the cells of the genital tract, or at preventing viral replication once the HI virus has entered a cell. The possibility of slow-release products is also being explored.”

May 2006
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