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Microbicide research aims to give women a weapon against AIDS

According to international AIDS charity AVERT, AIDS has killed five million more people than the Black Death. Another 40.3 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS around the world, and there is still no cure in sight.

Despite AIDS being the worst pandemic in human history, the only methods of preventing the disease continue to be the “ABCs of prevention:” abstain, be faithful, and condomise.

For women, the situation is bleak. Women who follow those rules do not necessarily avoid infection. Their male partners may refuse to both wear condoms and be faithful.

Scientists say there is hope in microbicides, a range of products being developed around the world that may one day significantly reduce the rate of infection.

Microbicides prevent the sexual transmission of HIV and other STDs by being applied to the vagina. They may be produced as a foam, gel, or ring that releases the active ingredient over time.

According to the Web site of the Global Campaign for Microbicides, an international microbicides lobbying group based in Washington, there are 60 such products being pursued, and at least 11 have moved to human testing.

If one lead proves effective, the site said, there could be a microbicide on the market in five to seven years.

According to Anna Forbes, a programs coordinator for the Campaign, the biggest problem facing microbicide development is funding.

“The science is there. The scientists assure us that it is possible. The problem is that there is not enough money in the research pipeline,” she said, adding that the majority of the funding has come from private organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded a $60 million development grant.

The site also said at least for now, no funding can be expected from pharmaceutical companies, as it is not in their economic self-interest to fund the research and development of the new products at this stage in the process.

So, according to Forbes, the hunt for funding is directing itself towards the public sector.

“We are in fact putting pressure on governments to increase their investment,” she said.

Here, that hunt has taken the form of the Microbicide Development Act, which was introduced in both the House and the Senate earlier this year.

The act encourages funding to various federal health agencies for the development of microbicides, but does not specify an exact amount.

In the House the bill, numbered 3854, is waiting to be heard by the Subcommittee on Health. It must pass in the subcommittee and the Committee on Health to make it to the floor of the House.

The campaign is encouraging citizens to contact their legislators and encourage them to co-sponsor the bill, which will garner more support for it on Capitol Hill. The campaign’s Web site has a form for this purpose at global-campaign.org.

“Send a message to your representative or your senator supporting the Microbicide Development Act. That’s the best thing people can do,” Forbes said. “Takes about a minute to do it and it is tremendously helpful.”

The BG News contacted Congressman Paul Gillmor’s office and, according to communications director Brad Mascho, had not heard from constituents concerning funding for microbicides.

“So at this point I don’t think he’s considering [co-sponsoring],” Mascho said.

He added that the congressman has supported several increases in the budget of the National Institute of Health, including an 800 percent increase in funding for the Ryan White program, which provides support for states, communities and families affected by the AIDS pandemic.

The NIH also has a $3 million microbicide development grant program.

Mascho said not cosponsoring a bill, “has no bearing on supporting a bill.”

According to Forbes, microbicides will benefit all women equally, whether they live in Bowling Green or Sub-Saharan Africa.

“They’ll have equal benefit for every woman that uses them because its one product and one body,” she said, adding that all microbicides are also being developed as potential contraceptives.

Like contraception, Forbes said that the future of HIV prevention will involve several products.

“For all different kinds of reasons people don’t use condoms,” she said. “How can we be in the third decade of the pandemic and not have a woman-controlled protection method?”

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