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Gel can halve HIV-infections, say scientists

A major step forward in testing a vaginal gel to protect women against HIV renewed optimism at the world Aids conference today after two days of rows over funding.

Delegates at the Vienna congress centre were told of the about the new research published in the US journal Science last night.

Researchers said during an experiment in South Africa, they found the vaginal gel significantly cut the rate of women catching HIV.

The gel, containing Aids drug tenofovir, cut infection rates among 889 women by 50 per cent after one year of using it, and by 39per cent after two and a half years, they said.

If the results stand up, it will be the first time that a microbicidal gel has been shown to work. A gel like this could help protect women whose partners refuse to wear condoms.

And new ways to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids are desperately needed, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 60 per cent of people infected with the virus are women. HIV/Aids is the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age worldwide, the United Nations programme on HIV/Aids says. Biologically, women are more vulnerable to HIV infection than men.

The best way to lower the risk of infection through sex is to use a condom - but this isn’t an option for the many women often forced to take part in unsafe sex. Therefore a gel that works would finally give women the chance to do something to protect themselves from infection - and take control of their own sexual health.

But earlier trials of the gel gave disappointing results and even the latest results of this three-year trial show that the gel isn’t a fail-safe mode of protection.

The study was run in the South African city of Durban as well as in a more cut off village. And the 889 women who took part were also given condoms and advice about sexually transmitted diseases, and tested for HIV once a month. The women were split into two groups, one that got tenofovir in their gel and another group which was given a placebo gel to use. In the tenofovir group only 38 women caught HIV, compared with 98, who used the dummy gel.

Salim Abdool Karim, one of the two leading co-researchers, said that he did not know how much each dose would cost but said the applicators and gel cost "just pennies".

"It's the first time we've ever seen any microbicide give a positive result that you could say was statistically significant," Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the BBC.

Hayley attribution