Creams and gels to protect women against the sexual transmission of the AIDS virus may be closer to reaching the market, a scientist told delegates this week at the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. The products may become instrumental in fighting the rising number of HIV cases among women, especially since there is still no AIDS vaccine.

Dr Zeda Rosenberg of the nonprofit group International Partnership for Microbicides predicted that the products, called microbicides, could be on the market in five years if current research trials are successful or up to ten year if they are not.

The latest reports show that being young, monogamous or married doesn’t protect women from the AIDS virus, since often it is their husbands who pass on the disease. Women now make up nearly 50 percent of all HIV cases, totaling17 million worldwide. The rates are even higher in sub-Saharan Africa, where they make up nearly 60 percent of all cases, and 75 percent of infected young people are female.

Researchers are hopeful that microbicides can lower these figures. Though they are not as effective as condoms, microbicides can protect women if their husbands or partners refuse to use a condom. It’s estimated that even a partially-effective microbicide could prevent 2.5 million HIV cases over three years, according to Rosenberg’s partnership.

Microbicides could be in products such as gels, creams, slow-release sponges and long-wearing vaginal rings. They would work by either killing HIV in semen, blocking the virus from attaching to its target cell or preventing HIV from multiplying if the virus enters the cell.

Research trials are still underway to see if these products will make their way into treatment centers. Rosenberg told Reuters that many products are currently being tested in different stages of clinical trials. Six of these trials will involve over 20,000 women over the next three years.

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XV International AIDS Conference, Bangkok 11-16, 2004:

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The Bush Administration decided on Friday to withhold all $34 million of congressionally approved funding for the United Nations Population Fund , the world’s largest international source of funding for population and reproductive health programs.

This is the third year in a row the administration has blocked the funding.

The U.N. agency estimates the $34 million could have helped prevent as many as two million unwanted pregnancies and nearly 800,000 abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths and over 77,000 infant and child deaths around the world. The money would also have been used to improve maternal health and HIV-prevention efforts.

Timothy E. Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, said in a statement that the decision “is a great disappointment to everyone who cares about women’s health, maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS prevention, and, frankly, to all of us who are concerned about the international cooperation as well as America’s reputation in the world.” He added that the United States is the only country ever to block funding to the U.N. agency for political reasons.

–Juhie Bhatia