amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

HIV Prevention Methods for Women, An Update

May 3, 2005 - More than 100 people attended a symposium titled HIV Prevention Technologies for Women at amfAR’s 17th National HIV/AIDS Update Conference in Oakland, California, April 11. The purpose of the symposium was to provide an update on promising HIV prevention methods that could be controlled by women, and to highlight the scientific and policy issues related to their development, acceptability, availability, and use.

Dr. Rowena Johnston, director of basic research at amfAR, opened the symposium with an overview of microbicides research. Microbicides are synthetic or natural substances in the form of a gel, cream, suppository, or film that could be applied prior to intercourse to neutralize HIV and block other sexually transmitted diseases that facilitate HIV infection. She described the mechanisms of sexual transmission of HIV and how microbicides would work to prevent infection. Dr. Johnston also described the scientific obstacles to developing effective and acceptable microbicide products and how these are being addressed in basic, clinical, and behavioral research supported by governmental and non-governmental organizations, including amfAR. The field has come a long way in the past few years, and a number of candidate compounds are now under investigation in human safety and efficacy trials around the world, she said.
Katy Backes from Ibis Reproductive Health followed with a discussion of the female condom and cervical barrier methods, such as diaphragms and cervical caps, as potential HIV prevention methods. Some of these methods already exist, and new products are under development. Recent data indicate that cervical barrier methods may offer some protection from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI). Although there are as yet no published results from long-term randomized controlled trials, Ms. Backes described one trial that is underway — the “MIRA” study — which is testing the efficacy of the diaphragm and Replens gel in preventing heterosexual acquisition of HIV infection among women.

Cathy Olufs, an HIV-positive treatment activist and health educator in Los Angeles, spoke about the importance of HIV prevention methods for HIV-positive women — a group that is often ignored. She suggested that prevention methods are profoundly important for HIV-positive women who want to protect themselves from superinfection (being re-infected with different strains of HIV), while also protecting their HIV-negative partners from becoming infected. Ms. Olufs called for the inclusion of HIV-positive women in research and advocacy pertaining to HIV prevention methods for women.

Anna Forbes of the Global Campaign for Microbicides introduced the film, “In Women’s Hands,” which depicts women around the world advocating for microbicide development, and provides commentary from prominent researchers about the scientific challenges and resources required to move studies forward. Discussing the socio-political climate in which microbicide advocacy currently is operating, Ms. Forbes noted the introduction of the Microbicide Development Act, sponsored by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ), which would expedite the implementation of the federal strategic plan for conducting and supporting microbicides research. The legislation would also promote the expansion and coordination of all activities pertaining to microbicides research and development. Ms. Forbes urged symposium attendees to support the bill.

amfAR organized and sponsored the symposium, in collaboration with The Well Project, The AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families, and The AIDS Institute. Dr. Judith D. Auerbach, amfAR’s vice president for public policy and program development, introduced the event, and Shalini Eddens, women’s program manager at Project Inform, served as moderator.