There is new hope to slow the HIV/AIDS epidemic: microbicides.According to the Global Campaign for microbicides an international coalition of organizations working to accelerate access to new HIV prevention options, “products are in development to work in one of several ways: by killing or otherwise immobilizing pathogens; blocking infection by creating a barrier between the pathogen and its target cells; or preventing the infection from taking hold after it has entered the body.” Microbicides are, simply put, “a new class of products under development that women could use vaginally to protect herself and her partner from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.”
Until a friend of mine who is an intern at Planned Parenthood told me about microbicides, I had no idea that such a great discovery was made. And she only knew because someone came to speak to her graduate class at Bryn Mawr College. I can only speculate the reasons why such a great discovery hasn’t been well-publicized.
One is the same reason why they haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration yet: lack of funding.
Public investment is needed in Microbicides because “neither pharmaceutical nor major biotech companies have made significant financial investments in the field, because development is costly and the likelihood of finding an effective product is unknown,” according to the Global Campaign. My conspiracy theory is that the pharmaceutical companies are backed by conservative businesses and investors who are part of the religious right. Having something available that would prevent HIV and STD infection would greatly reduce the validity of the right’s argument that premarital sex will kill you.
Aside from the obvious positive factors about Microbicides is that, since they would be used vaginally in the form of a gel, sponge or long-term intra-vaginal ring, HIV and STD prevention is put in the hands of women. In countries where condom usage is stigmatized or against customs, this could greatly reduce the transmission of HIV infection.
According to the Global Campaign, “Biologically, women are two to four times more vulnerable than men to sexually transmitted HIV infection…scientists estimate that even a 60 percent effective microbicide could prevent 2.5 million HIV infections in three years in the developing world.”
Some may be concerned that with the introduction of microbicides, condom use would decrease. However, consistent condom use among many groups remains low, and the fact that microbicides could be used in place of condoms by people who do not have access to them, or where condom use is forbidden, should outweigh the potential that people may stop using condoms. Overall, using condoms and microbicides could virtually erase the risk of HIV or STD transmission.
Microbicides would also be useful for situations when rape and sexual abuse occur since the male would not know that the woman is protected. It could also be used for consensual, unplanned sex also, of course.
Currently, the Global Campaign for Microbicides and the International Partnership for Microbicides are among the main organizations advocating for more research to be done and eventual FDA approval. According to the Global Campaign, “Scientists are testing dozens of compounds to determine whether they will help to protect against HIV and/or other STDs. Of those, 16 are in clinical trials that will assess their safety for human use, and five are in large-scale trials enrolling thousands of women to assess their effectiveness against HIV.
If one of these leads proves successful and investment is sufficient, a microbicide could be publicly available by the end of the decade.” For more information, visit www.ipm-microbicides.org or www.global-campaign.org.
Sally Cramer is a senior majoring in fine arts with minors in communication studies and women’s studies.