New hope for women in the fight against AIDS

New USAID-supported study shows promise for HIV prevention gel

A study released this week at the XVIII International AIDS conference in Vienna, Austria, has lifted hopes for research and development for a female-controlled HIV prevention tool. The study—conducted among nearly 900 women at two sites in South Africa—showed a notable reduction in the risk of HIV infection associated with an experimental microbicide gel that contained the antiretroviral drug tenofovir. The study also showed a reduction in the risk of genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection that can increase the risk of HIV. The gel was found to be both safe and acceptable, reducing the risk of HIV infection by 39 percent and herpes simplex virus type 2 infection by 51 percent. Although further research will need to be conducted to confirm these findings, this landmark study demonstrates the crucial role of research in providing women with effective HIV prevention options.

"This is an important day," said Yasmin Halima, director of the Global Campaign for Microbicides and a member of the Global Health Technologies Coalition. "We now have evidence that a vaginal gel can help prevent HIV. This is good news for women, good news for the field, and a good day for science."

US agency collaboration

This is a groundbreaking and important study for several reasons. First, the research was supported in large part by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States' lead foreign assistance agency, in partnership with the US-based organizations FHI and CONRAD. The study demonstrates the unique role USAID plays in global health research, providing critical expertise and leadership in product development through its international presence. In addition, the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA)—the institution that conducted the research and which also receives support from the US Department of Health and Human Services—provides a model for effective collaboration across US agencies. The study provides a prime example of why efforts by USAID and other agencies to support and elevate global health research need full support from US decision-makers.

The study, supported by the government of South Africa’s Technology Innovation Agency, also illustrates the power and importance of national governments in leading research to benefit the health of their own countries. The trial was also designed and implemented by South African researchers—Quarraisha Abdool Karim and Salim S. Abdool Karim of CAPRISA—thereby reflecting Africa’s extraordinary contributions to global health science.

A woman-centered approach

Finally, the microbicide gel is a woman-focused health tool, putting the power to protect women from HIV in their own hands. The Obama administration has made elevating women's health a key priority. President Obama's new Global Health Initiative (GHI), for example, is slated to devote $63 billion over six years to improving health worldwide and focuses on improving the health of women and children. A new, woman-centered HIV prevention tool, such as a microbicide, would be a key step toward meeting the Obama administration's global health goals.

"I am proud USAID is at the forefront of scientific innovation," USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said, adding that the study "is a model for future research studies in which clinical trials will be led by in-country investigators backed up by the scientific and operational expertise of their US colleagues. This approach builds the research capacity of the developing world, contributes to sustainable health systems, and exemplifies how President Obama's Global Health Initiative intends to leverage technology and innovation to improve health around the world."

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