HIV Gel Called Poor Substitute for Women's Rights

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Some advocates at last week's International AIDS Conference greeted news of the results of an HIV gel coolly, saying more was needed than a "medicalized" response to an epidemic that travels a social pathway of infringed women's rights.

VIENNA, Austria (WOMENSENEWS)--The preventive benefits of an HIV vaginal gel dominated the headlines of the International AIDS Conference in Vienna last week, but failed to allay the concerns that Mabel Bianco has about the public-health response to the epidemic.

Like many other women's advocates at the meeting, Bianco, an Argentinean feminist and member of Women ARISE, an international coalition of women's HIV networks, thinks women's problems negotiating safe sex and other HIV-AIDS preventions are intrinsically linked to the abrogation of their rights in other areas, such as land ownership, access to education and participation in politics.

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"I'm afraid the response to the epidemic is very medicalized," Bianco said. "There is not a pill for gender equity."

Women continue to carry the weight of the HIV epidemic, numerous advocacy groups said, noting that the proportion of women infected with HIV has been rising.

In sub-Saharan Africa, which hosts two-thirds of the world's HIV-positive population, 60 percent of people living with HIV are women. In the Caribbean and the Middle East, women are more than 50 percent of the HIV-positive population.

While medical research news is welcome, Purnima Mane, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, said that women's infection risks are often aggravated by social, rather than medical, issues.

"The vulnerability of women, the issues that are impacting women, haven't changed as much as they should because they are not related to HIV, they are related to women's situations in general," she said in an interview.

Vulnerabilities Heighten Risk

Women still struggle to negotiate condom use, are vulnerable to sexual violence, often lack education and access to prevention information and when economically disadvantaged are more likely to use transactional sex or sex work to support themselves. All of these vulnerabilities heighten their risk of contracting HIV.

Women who are free of HIV also bear the disproportionate brunt of caretaking that the disease brings.

"As women we are young women, we are positive, we are sex workers, we are drug users, we are mothers, we are caregivers, we are everything," said Bianco.

The CAPRISA study of the vaginal gel produced the first positive results for this new technology. Unlike condoms, the gel, called a microbicide, does not require the consent of a male sex partner.

With further research advances, women could hypothetically apply the vaginal gel before and after sex to decrease their risk of getting HIV. In the study, the gel was only 39 percent effective, and effectiveness decreased over time. Women who applied the gel regularly were 54 percent less likely to be infected with HIV. But it is a useful first step for scientists to build on, researchers widely agreed.

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