Researchers found that after a woman has used a microbiocide gel containing 1% tenofovir 12 hours before sexual intercourse and up to 12 hours after sexual intercourse for a year, her risk of contracting HIV was half that of a woman who used a placebo gel. After two and half years of use, the gel seems to become slightly less effective, with a woman who uses it being only 39% less likely than a woman using a placebo to contract HIV. However, the drop off in effectiveness is thought to be due to some women in the study “tending to use it inconsistently as time went on, not knowing whether it was in fact having any effect.”
The gel’s potential to decrease the rate of women who contract HIV could be a major breakthrough in slowing the spread of AIDS. Women are disproportionally affected by HIV/AIDS; 60% of new HIV/AIDS infections in Africa are among women. If the gel became widely available, women would have more control in avoiding contracting HIV/AIDS.
“Picture a young woman in a rural community in South Africa who walks through my clinic doors asking me what I have to protect her from getting infected,” said Dr Quarraisha Abdool Karim, one of the authors of the paper. “Her partner is a migrant worker and refuses to wear a condom and she is not sure of his faithfulness in this relationship. From being able to tell her for years that I have nothing, I can now offer her 1% tenofovir gel, which offers her 39% protection and, if she is highly attuned to this gel [uses it consistently], it offers her 54% protection.”
Researchers found that the gel had very few side effects, “which is extremely important because it will be used by women who are healthy.” Additionally, in a previous study involving a gel that proved unsuccessful in lowering the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, women cited increased sexual pleasure as a positive effect of gel use. Wits professor Helen Rees, of the university’s reproductive health and HIV institute said that the majority of feedback from participants citing increased sexual pleasure with gel use came from women in menopause. If the gel continues to prove successful, the “sexual pleasure factor could be a potential marketing option.”
While preliminary research showing tenofovir gel to be successful in reducing the contraction of HIV/AIDS in women is exciting, there is still work to be done before it can become widely available. The results must be confirmed by the Follow-on African Consortium for Tenofovir Studies (Facts) study whose results are not expected to be released until 2013 and then the gel must go through a licensing process before it could be manufactured and marketed.
If further research confirms the success of the gel, then Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has committed WHO to use its resources to distribute the gel to women as quickly as possible. To find more detailed information on the preliminary study showing tenofovir gel to be effective, click here.