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Half of the women were given the microbicide and the others, a dummy gel. Women were told to use it 12 hours before sex and as soon as possible within 12 hours afterward.
At the study's end, there were 38 HIV infections among the microbicide group versus 60 in the others.
The gel seemed safe -- only mild diarrhea was slightly more common among those using it. Surveys showed that the vast majority of women found it easy to use and said their partners didn't mind it. And 99 percent of the women said they would use the gel if they knew for sure that it prevented HIV.
This shows that new studies testing the gel's effectiveness without a placebo group should immediately be launched, said Salim Abdool Karim. The only other study testing the gel now compares it to placebo and will take a couple more years to complete.
The study was sponsored by the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, or CAPRISA; Family Health International; CONRAD, an AIDS research effort based at Eastern Virginia Medical School; and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Gilead has licensed the rights to produce the gel, royalty-free, to CONRAD and the International Partnership on Microbicides for the 95 poorest countries in the world, said Dr. Howard Jaffe, president of the Gilead Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.
The biggest cost of the gel is the plastic applicator -- about 32 cents, which hopefully would be lower when mass-produced, researchers said.
Mitchell Warren, head of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, a nonprofit group that works on HIV prevention tools, said the study shows a preventive gel is possible.
"We can now say with great certainty that the concept has been proved. And that in itself is a day for celebration," he said.
AIDS conference: http://www.aids2010.org/
Microbicides (PDF report)
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