Women dealt double blow at AIDS conference

The failure of a special vaginal gel to prevent sex workers from getting HIV means that condoms remain the world’s only protection against the disease during sex .

Some 990 sex workers, including 305 South Africans, were involved in testing the gel — called a microbicide. Half the women used the gel during sex while the others used a placebo. All were encouraged by UNAIDS researchers to use condoms as well.

Not only was the gel ineffective, but it actually increased the risk of   infection as more women using the gel tested HIV positive (15%) than those that didn’t (10%).

The reason, said UNAIDS’s Tim Farley, is that the gel might actually cause “small disruptions in the vaginal wall”, making it easier for the virus to pass into the women’s bodies.

“The results of the trial were a surprise and a disappointment,” said Farley. “But there is the need to accelerate trials on microbicides.”  

This is bad news for South African women, as microcides – or “invisible condoms” – offered hope to the many women who say they cannot ask their partner to use a condom. Her partner would not be aware if she was using a   microbicide.

To add to this bad news is the finding that female condoms cannot be safely reused. The UNAIDS said soap and water might not be strong enough to kill the viruses that may have been gathered in the condom, while washing with anything stronger would weaken the latex.

This is also a blow to women who want to take charge of preventing their HIV infection, as female condoms are far more expensive than male condoms.

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