Win for Women’s Health: New Gel Significantly Cuts Risk of HIV and Herpes Transmission!

In a huge win for women’s health, a new study published today found that a gel applied by women before and after sex slashed the chance of acquiring the AIDS virus by 39% and the genital herpes virus by 51%.

From Akimbo, the blog of the International Women’s Health Coalition:

The Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) has announced that a microbicide it has been testing has shown to be 39% effective in prevention the transmission of HIV to female receptive partners. The microbicide gel contains the drug tenofovir, an antiretroviral drug used widely in the treatment of HIV, and is designed to be used vaginally both before and after penile-vaginal penetration.

Woh. This is a huge deal because of how few woman-controlled methods of HIV prevention really exist: prior to this most recent development, female condoms were really our only option. Here on Feministing, we’ve posted before about some of the awesome attributes of the female condom, as well as some of its drawbacks. But no matter your views of that particular method, I think we can all agree that it’s pretty amazing to have more alternatives for safer sex.

Though this gel is obviously not yet something that could be used by itself to afford total protection, (at 39% and 51% effective against HIV and herpes, respectively, it’s hardly a sure thing), its current success is very promising and bodes well for future versions of the technology. The development of an even more successful microbicide gel could mean that further down the line, women could have the option to protect themselves from HIV without needing a barrier method at all, and thus without having to negotiate condom usage with a partner. This is all kinds of awesome for all kinds of different reasons, one being that a major factor in the recent feminization of the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been that too often, violence, coercion, economic dependency, and other factors make it difficult to for women to negotiate condom use on their own terms. Just another reason why I’m psyched about this new technology.

Check out the full study in Science magazine here. Read more about what UNAIDS and the WHO think about this in their joint release here.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • Nicole

    Sincere question: How do they test this type of thing? I’m assuming they don’t take people who are HIV positive, people who are HIV negative, and ask them to have sex with one another, using both a control group (no gel) and a test group (with the gel)? I’m legitimately curious.
    Also, this is great news!!

  • queerhummingbird

    it’s exciting news. but this comes at a cost to women, too.
    “of the 444 women who received a placebo gel, 60 became infected with HIV, versus 38 infections in the 445 women who received the microbicide”

  • daveNYC

    “Woh. This is a huge deal because of how few woman-controlled methods of HIV prevention really exist: prior to this most recent development, female condoms were really our only option.”
    I think it’s low success rate is a more important data point than the fact that it’s controlled by the woman. If you’re using this to avoid infection, you’ve what, delayed getting infected by about a week?
    Murphy’s Law also dictates that anyone who becomes infected with HIV while using this product, will end up with HIV that is resistant to tenofovir.
    Better than nothing, but not by much.

  • gwye

    How is this any more “female-controlled” than the “male” condom?
    Condoms and gels are bilateral birth-controlled because they require the cooperation of both partners. Even if they are applied to only one person’s body, both people are aware of them and can verify whether or not they were used. Either partner can demand they be used (or not used!) and the other has no choice but to comply or cancel the sexual interaction.
    Pills, jabs, rings ect. are unilateral, because each can be used/neglected without your partners knowledge/consent. If, for example, there were a hypothetical male pill, that would be unilateral, because the man could choose to take it or not take it, and the woman would either have to trust him or cancel sex.
    Clearly, this gel falls in the first category.

  • Flor

    actually, from the NYtimes article: “The women who participated in the study — in the city of Durban and in the rural community of Vulindlela, in the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal — used the gel up to 12 hours before and after sex. Usually their partners were not aware of it.”

  • respectforscience

    I’m here at the conference in Vienna, and would be happy to try to explain my interpretation of this incredibly exciting study – which is only a FIRST STEP towards having a microbicide on the market, but a huge step at that.
    Nicole: these studies take place in populations with high HIV prevalence. They don’t force HIV- people to have sex with HIV+ people. Before enrolling women in the trial, they inform them that they are going to receive either placebo gel, or a gel that *MAY* reduce the risk of HIV, but that it is of unknown efficacy. They also counsel all of them to use condoms at every sexual encounter. But some women will still engage in unprotected sex, sometimes because their partners refuse to wear condoms. Unfortunately, with the HIV epidemic, we are not only battling a virus, but issues like gender inequality and intimate partner violence that make it quite complex. I can tell you more about what I learned about WHY women stated that they participated in this trial, if you like, but my point to you is that these women (who are really heroes!) are completely informed of the study details and voluntarily choose whether to be involved. These kinds of studies go through enormous review by ethics committees.
    The reduction in risk of HIV acquisition was an AVERAGE of 39%. It was higher among women who were more adherent to using the gel as directed (a 54% reduction in risk among women who were more than 80% adherent). While 39% may sound low to you, this is a risk reduction model and is actually a huge amount of reduction. Male circumcision was hailed as the medical breakthrough of the year in 2008, and that reduced HIV acquisition in men by 50%. Furthermore, this is just a proof-of-concept study, rest assured that they are already thinking of ways that the protection might be increased further. Still, even a partially effective product will literally prevent millions of infections (both HIV and herpes, which the gel also protected against). Certainly, queerhummingbird, it is a tragedy for every single woman who did become infected in this trial – but even more would have been infected if the trial had not taken place.
    daveNYC: they assessed whether there was resistance to tenofivir among women who used the product and still became HIV infected, and found no evidence of emergence of resistant virus. There will certainly be more work done to ensure safety and to ensure that resistance will not occur before this product goes on the market – and they are providing care and treatment for those women who did become infected, as well as following them to continue to monitor for the potential of resistance.
    Gwye: the women in the video noted specifically that they used the gel without their boyfriend knowing. Others chose to tell their partner. So, second category.
    There are still important questions to be answered, such as, will this be available in contraceptive form (for women who want to avoid pregnancy and HIV) and non-contraceptive form (for those who want to avoid HIV but get pregnant), will it be able to be used as a rectal microbicide for anal intercourse, will it be able to be used in a single dose AFTER sex (instead of 12 hours before sex and again 12 hours after sex) so that women who have non-consensual or unplanned sex can also benefit from it, etc. Keep in mind that this study really represents a first step (admittedly a step in a long line of unsuccessful steps of other microbicide trials, but those failures helped on the path to success) – although it is an enormous advance in terms of the tools we have available for HIV prevention. Point is, there is still a LOT of work to be done, and everybody in Vienna knows this, but today – we celebrate a major breakthrough with loads of promise!

  • hardlycore

    the gel can be put in up to 12 hours before intercourse – unless the woman put it in immediately before sex or right in front of the man, there would probably be no way to tell it was being used.

  • http://feministing.com/members/rhea/ Nikki

    I’m interested to see this product viewed in such positive terms. As far as I know this was the same product which was tested on women in Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa (because testing on WHITE women in the western world would be unethical right?) and resulted in many (uneducated and unempowered) women being infected with HIV, and, moreso, infected in countries where being infected with HIV really is a death sentence, unlike in some western countries where it is a treatable condition. I’m just not sure how such a blatantly anti-feminist – not to mention unethical – product testing procedure can now be viewed as a feminist and women friendly product.


    • makomk

      Different gel. This is the tenofovir-based one mentioned briefly as another possible option in the article you linked.

      And yes, testing on white women in the western world would be unethical, because their HIV rate is so low already that there’s virtually no chance of a meaningful result. (It’d also be scientifically questionable for other reasons.) Unfortunately, the researchers testing this couldn’t use their more traditional lower-class white male pool of disposable test subjects for these studies, both because of this and because it’s a female-specific product.