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New weapon against HIV
22 Jul 2010

THE fight against Aids is unrelenting, with scientists seeking medical breakthroughs, governments driving social education programmes and individuals having to make difficult choices about their conduct.

Recent microbicide trials have failed at the first hurdle, and so the news that tests on a vaginal gel that contains antiretroviral drugs are proving successful heralds the prospect of a significant weapon in limiting the spread of the disease.

Figures released this week show that in spite of a major effort by government to test and treat those infected with HIV, the number of people living with HIV has increased by 0,2% to about 5,24 million. It is known that young women are the worst affected. In Vulindlela, outside Pietermaritzburg, where the University of KwaZulu-Natal conducted most of its research on the gel, more than 60% of women under the age of 30 are HIV-positive. Nationally, women under the age of 25 are five times more likely than men of the same age to be infected.

The positive findings about the new gel follow two-and-a-half years of tests, which showed that of the 445 women who were using the gel containing the ARV tenofovir, 38 became HIV-positive, while 60 of the 444 women using a placebo gel did. The HIV infection rate was found to have been cut by 54% among women who used the gel properly.

The gel still has to complete the trials process before it can be fully approved for general use, and that would under normal circumstances still take a number of years. If all goes as is hoped, the gel will go a long way to empowering women actively to protect themselves. Condoms have traditionally been the main line of defence against infection, but as many South African women will testify, getting their partners to use them has been an uphill battle. The gel would offer them independence of choice, a freedom that decreases the risk of infection not only for themselves but for their babies. This may well prove to be a most significant medical breakthrough, and hopes are up that the spread of Aids will be slowed as a result.

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