PATH Experts Were Early Pathfinders to AIDS Microbicide

So far, the best news out of the 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna was the report issued Monday that an experimental vaginal gel containing a small amount of an anti-HIV drug was fairly effective at preventing HIV infection in women.

microbicide_applicator

Science

Microbicide applicator

It is the first effective anti-AIDS microbicide, a tool designed to help women protect themselves against HIV.

Microbicides — the word itself and an advocacy movement aimed at promoting the concept — were originated in the 1990s by two people, Lori Heise and Chris Elias, both of whom brought their passion for women’s health issues to Seattle-based PATH.

“Lori discovered years ago that this would take more than just science,” said Yasmin Halima, director of the Global Campaign for Microbicides — an advocacy organization launched by Heise before she came to PATH, which is now run by Elias. “She knew it would take a movement, political will.”

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Most new infections in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the AIDS pandemic is still concentrated, are in women. As Halima noted in a telephone interview from the Vienna meeting:

“We know how to prevent HIV but many of the options (like convincing men to use condoms) are not always viable for women.”

A vaginal gel used before and after sex, impregnated with a drug to kill any invading HIV, could give some women their best hope of avoiding this deadly infection, Halima said.

The research demonstrating modest efficacy for this gel was done in South Africa with 900 women volunteers and paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has, over the past decade, put several hundred million dollars into the science.

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But getting here began nearly two decades ago, with a few people who stubbornly pursued an idea.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.