Empowering women against AIDS

Microbicides let women protect themselves from getting infected by men who protest condoms, play around.

Published May 8, 2006 9:12PM (EDT)

The ability to stop the spread of AIDS may indeed rest in the hands of women. If this product lives up to its promise, a woman will be able to insert a clear, odorless gel called a microbicide into her vagina, which will prevent the transmission of the virus as well as other sexually transmitted diseases. Not only is this a potentially significant breakthrough to stem the disease, but it means that for the first time women will have the power to protect themselves, writes Melinda French Gates in this week's Newsweek.

Without that, women must rely on men's cooperation to avoid getting infected with HIV. Currently, the most effective prevention tools are known as ABC ("Abstain, be faithful, use condoms"). But they're not stopping the spread. "For millions of married women, abstinence is unrealistic, being faithful is insufficient and the use of condoms is not under their control," writes Gates, who is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is helping fund microbicide research.

The result is that women can't rely on the safety of marriage or a long-term relationship, since 80 percent of women with new infections were monogamous. Such women are especially vulnerable, Gates explains, because their physiological differences mean they have double the risk of men of contracting the virus during sex. Old-fashioned inequality means they have little power to make men wear condoms.

Microbicides, which are being tested in several countries, offer one hope. (Broadsheet recently wrote about the current trials; 2010 is the earliest estimate for a product to appear on the market.) Other studies are looking at using current treatment drugs as preventive measures. In the meantime, Gates calls for governments around the world to fund more research, since the $163 million slated in 2005 accounts for only half of the needed financing. Add to the list more clinical trial sites, condoms, education and testing for high-risk areas.

AIDS in the developing world is a horrifying story; today, some one-fourth of women in South Africa are infected. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could start to bring those numbers down in a few years? All a woman would have to do is excuse herself to the bathroom and fish around in her purse for a little plastic contraption that could save her life.

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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