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Women soon to take charge of prevention methods against HIV
Margaret Chinowaita, Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN)
Extracted from WASN Newsletter - March 2005
March 2005

PREVENTION against HIV has long been male territory. Commonly used male condoms may only be used with men’s compliance, leaving women almost no chance to protect them.

Alarmingly, half of all new HIV infections worldwide now occur in women, while vaccines still remain a relatively distant hope.

But women will soon have more ways to get on top of this unfair situation, promised scientists and delegates at the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok held last year.

Until now, female condoms have been the only women initiated protection, but high prices have so far prevented them from becoming widely available, despite acceptability among women in many countries. That is set to change very soon.

“Some research has been done on new prototypes of much cheaper female condoms. I think we are going to see them in the next year (this year),” said Dr Helen Reese of South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand.

In Zimbabwe one female controlled device that has proved effective in protecting women from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as unwanted pregnancy, is the female condom. Yet this device remains highly under-utilised and inaccessible to the target group.

The Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN), which is among the organisations that spearheaded the battle for the introduction of the device on the local market in 1996, is disappointed that the female condom has remained largely under-utilised, while it is virtually unknown in some pockets of the country such as the rural areas. In addition, it is highly inaccessible because of its restrictive price. The female condom remains a mystery and unpublicised, yet this is an empowering tool for women.

The Bangkok AIDS conference also brought out that diaphragms, routinely used in pregnancy prevention, are being evaluated for their potential to prevent HIV infection, as scientists have recently discovered that the cervix is more vulnerable to infection than the vagina.

Diaphragms may be used discreetly, without a partner’s knowledge, unlike female condoms. “Dr Reese did note that some women reported their men are often too drunk to notice the difference anyway.”

For those women who want to have children, the price of conception may no longer be certain infection.

Many studies of topical microbicides have reached the late stages and will likely bear fruit in a few more years. Even a modestly efficacious microbicides could save millions of lives, not just of women, but of their partners and children, too.

Also under investigation is the anti-retroviral drug tenofovir as pre-exposure prophylaxis against HIV.

“When we meet again in Toronto (at the 2006 AIDS Conference), we are going to have exciting information about the results of these studies,” said Dr Helene Gayle from the Bill and Melinda Foundation, which funds the investigation said in Bangkok.

It is hoped that these preventative measures can soon be applied synergistically to offer a previously unattainable high level of protection for half of the world’s population.

* Extracts of the story obtained from The Nation newspaper of Bangkok,Thailand.

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