The increasing toll on women from the AIDS epidemic has spurred research for a protective gel or cream and one could be on the market in five years if all goes well, a leading researcher said yesterday.
With women making up nearly 60 percent of all HIV infections in Africa, and because being young, married and faithful is no protection against infection, the need has never been greater.
"There could be a product on the market in five years if the current products in large-scale trials work," Dr. Zeda Rosenberg, of the non-profit International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM), said at a global AIDS conference.
"If they do not, then it will be seven to nine years," she said.
AIDS experts estimate that even a partially effective microbicide -- a cream, gel, foaming tablet or a vaginal ring that acts like an invisible condom -- could prevent 2.5 million deaths from AIDS over three years.
With no AIDS vaccine likely to be on the market for years, a microbicide offers one of the best chances to thwart the global pandemic, experts say.
Last year alone, almost 3 million people died and 5 million were infected with the virus. The most vulnerable group are poor, young women and, increasingly, married women whose husbands refuse to use condoms.
UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan, in his opening address to the 15th International AIDS Conference, stressed the importance of helping women.
"We must ensure they have full access to the practical options that can protect them from HIV -- including microbicides, as they become available," he said.
Condoms are still the best means of protection against the virus, but microbicides would allow women to protect themselves if their husbands or partners refuse to use them.
Rosenberg said there were many products in different stages of clinical trials. Two have begun efficacy testing and four more are due to follow soon. The trials will involve 20,000 women over the next three years.
The microbicides would either kill HIV in semen, block the attachment of the virus to its target cell or prevent HIV from multiplying if the virus enters the cell.
"You keep it at a local infection and stop it locally before the virus spreads throughout the body. The ideal microbicide eventually may be one that combines all three stages," Rosenberg said.
The IPM, which receives funding from governments and foundations, is developing its own microbicides and is working with other groups that have promising candidates.
The ideal product would be easy to produce so companies around the world could make them as rapidly as possible to ensure wide use and availability.
"We're looking for pennies a dose, but even that will be beyond the reach of many people around the world," Rosenberg said. The IPC was also looking at ways to finance purchase and distribution, she said.
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