25 Apr 2006
More than 1000 delegates from different parts of the world comprising Scientists politicians and other HIV researchers are attending the fourth international conference on Microbicides that opened on Sunday April 23 in Cape Town, South Africa. Experts like Dr. Kim Dickson of the WHO and Prof Helen Rees of the reproductive health and HIV research Unit of Wits University are giving positive signals that the first generation of microbicides (substances that can kill or de-activate HIV and other targeted micro organisms) may soon be available for use in the fight against HIV. “At this point the microbicides research field is feeling that there might well be the possibility of having an effective microbicide in the next few years,” Rees told Reuters.
Microbicide in this context refers to an array of vaginal and rectal creams, gels, pessaries and suppositories that are formulated to kill microbes and the HIV virus when applied to the vagina or rectum before sexual intercourse. “Newer products are targeting the attachment of the virus to the cells of the genital tract, or are preventing viral replication once the virus has entered the cell.” Said Prof Gita Ramjee, another leading researcher. Research for useful microbicides against the HIV virus has been going on for more than 15 years. That work is certainly yielding fruit as five of such microbicides are in advanced clinical trials (testing on people). Gita Ramjee says that in South Africa, four products are already in phase three trials (the most advanced stage of the microbicide testing). Over 9600 women from South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia are involved in the trial.
It is believed that if successful, microbicides could have a major impact on the fight against HIV, particularly in Africa where women now account for more than 60% of infected adults aged 15 to 49. “It is not always possible for people to negotiate condom use in many different circumstances. So there was obviously a need to have methods that were potentially hidden, could be female-controlled…and that will make a condom itself even safer.” Said Rees.
There is the general feeling that this break through would have been arrived at much earlier had pharmaceutical companies shown more interest in the research. The American and British governments working in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have provided most of the funds that have helped to sustain the research so far. Critics charge that major pharmaceutical companies have shied away from this project because they see limited prospects of financial reward down the road.
According to UNAids, there are an estimated 40.3million people living with HIV in the world, and out of this number 25.8 million are in Sub Saharan Africa. More than 3 million people died of Aids-related illnesses including 500,000 children in 2005 alone.
As the global spread of HIV assumes a frightening dimension (with reported 5 million new infections in 2005) any news about a possible reversal of that trend is warmly embraced around the world.
Njei Moses Timah