Africa is famously plagued by the AIDS virus. In the sub-Sahara region of the continent, 22.4 million people live with the infection. In 2008 alone, 1.4 million people died from the infection while an additional 1.9 million more became infected. But the Wall Street Journal reports on a medical breakthrough that may turn the tide in the fight against AIDS. A new gel, applied and controlled by women, seems to reduce the risk of infection by 39 percent. What’s more, it reduces the risk of receiving the genital herpes virus by 51 percent.

The gel is clear and odorless, and it contains the antiretroviral drug tenofovir. Women who used it consistently had a much better chance of avoiding not only AIDS but also the genital herpes virus, which has been known to make women more susceptible to HIV. Experts say this new gel could help prevent infection in about half a million people in the next 10 years.

Women apply the gel before and after sex — and up to a third of the women who used it said their partners never noticed. This is a key victory in the fight against AIDS because women have traditionally been at the mercy of their partner’s discretion. The United Nations estimates that women account for more than 60 percent of all AIDS cases in sub-Sahara Africa.

Mamphela Ramphele is a doctor and head of the South African government's Technology and Innovation Agency. As she told the WSJ, "The winner in this is the woman who — for the first time since this scourge started — has a mechanism that helps her protect her body.”

Much of the testing was done in Vulindlela, a community of 90,000. Less than a quarter of women in Vulindlela report that their partners use condoms. What’s more, many men in the area frequently solicit prostitutes, while many women often trade sex for favors. As the WSJ reports, only 7 percent of Vulindlela women have jobs, often placing them in compromising positions with older men.

Experts are conducting follow-up trials on the gel, because the impact on pregnant women is still uncertain. They are working to reduce the costs of the medicine to make it available to all. Gilead Sciences Inc., which owns the drug, licensed it for no royalty to two not-for-profit organizations.

Hopes are high that this move will pay off. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is not involved in the study, but he calls the results of the new gel “stunning … given that it's the first microbicide trial with a positive result.”

For further reading:

See also:

What are HIV symptoms?