Field of Science


"Doing the Happy Dance"

Have you heard this week's big news? No, not about Lindsay going to jail, or whatever's leaking or not leaking out of the oil well. I mean the news from South Africa about a gel for women that can cut HIV infection rates in half.

"Boy, have we been doing the happy dance," says researcher Salim Abdool Karim. Here's why:

Ever since it was discovered in 1984 that HIV causes AIDS, scientists and government officials have been swearing a vaccine is just a few years away. But the virus has proven to be more squirrely than anyone expected. An exciting vaccine was tested on humans starting in the mid-2000's, but researchers had to stop the trial early: not only was the vaccine failing to prevent infection, it seemed to increase the risk of HIV.

In Africa, there are 3.5 million new HIV cases every year, and women are disproportionately affected. As the study notes, "behavioral messages on abstinence, faithfulness and condom promotion have had limited impact," especially in the sub-Saharan region. Some schoolgirls are so desperately poor that they have "transactional" unprotected sex with older men in exchange for financial support.

The new gel is inexpensive, and women can use it without the cooperation (or knowledge) of their partners. It contains a drug called tenofovir that attacks retroviruses (like HIV). And in this trial, women who consistently used the gel cut their risk of HIV infection in half.

More, and larger, studies will have to be done before the gel can be made publicly available. But the 900 women in this study provided better news than the AIDS world--which is to say, the world--has heard in years.

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