Microbicides conference dispels fears over trial failures

Photo by ricardo.martinsThe latest disappointment for scientists working to develop an effective microbicide came just days before the International Microbicides Conference 2008 in New Delhi, when another anti-HIV vaginal gel failed to prove effective against the disease.

Microbicide advocates around the world voiced their concern over the potential for the failure to cloud the need for more effective HIV prevention measures for men and women.

But the messages from the February 24–27 New Delhi conference were positive and clear with delegates calling for an end to the gender inequalities and power imbalances that continue to put many women at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV.

India’s Union Health and Family Welfare Minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss told conference representatives, “AIDS in India is not only a health issue, it is a social issue, it is an economic issue.”

“Millennium Development Goals speak about promoting gender equality, empowerment and improved maternal health to combat HIV. It will be very difficult to achieve the … goals if the current trend of increasing HIV infections in women continues,” Dr Ramadoss said.

“Although the HIV prevalence in India is 0.36%, the latest antenatal figures are 0.8%, which shows that women are vulnerable. Studies done in Chennai and Pune have shown that more than 90% of women infected are married, monogamous women who don’t perceive their husband as a threat. Condom use reported among these women is only 8%.”

This year marked the first time the conference had been held in Asia and more than 1300 delegates attended to discuss promising microbicides in the research pipeline, along with global efforts to accelerate research and development and the need to reduce the gender inequalities that put women at risk.

The development of microbicides is seen as a key to empowering women to protect themselves from HIV. Women are biologically more vulnerable to the transmission of STIs and many cultural and economic factors compound this vulnerability.

Millions of women live in societies that permit them no role in sexual decision-making, that condone male infidelity and assign the burden of shame and stigma associated with infectious diseases to women.

Former Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research, renowned scientists and patron of MRAI Dr Nirmal K Ganguly told conference delegates that despite a number of setbacks, microbicides could be useful to many women and that four candidate products were “entering into important stages of clinical trials in India.”

“We need more work on basic research, both for microbicides and vaccines,” Dr Ganguly said before highlighting the need for further advocacy and the involvement of communications experts in the drive for the use of microbicides.

“I attended a symposium at a Boston university where the major people in the public health area were a linguist, a musician and a filmmaker because they were the people who had the power to communicate in language which was understood by the people for whom it was meant,” Dr Ganguly said.

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To listen to the podcast of the opening ceremony, with the plenary presentations made by Union Health Minister of India Dr Ramadoss, click here

Bobby Ramakant-CNS

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