Husband and Wife May 'Alter the Course of the HIV Epidemic'

A team of South African scientists (pictured above) received three standing ovations at the XVIII International AIDS Conference on Tuesday, following their research presentation in Vienna.

They had achieved what many researchers feared might never happen: They'd created an HIV-fighting vaginal gel experts say has the potential to "alter the course of the HIV epidemic."

Here's how it works: an HIV-negative woman would apply the microbicide – which contains the potent antiretroviral drug Tenofovir – just before and after intercourse. Early tests have shown that doing this would cut her chance of acquiring the virus by 39 percent. It would also cut her risk of being infected by herpes by more than 50 percent.

For husband-and-wife epidemiologists Salim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim (pictured), who in 10 years conducted seven failed trials for the study, these encouraging results -- based on their research in urban and rural South Africa -- could not have come at a better time.

South Africa is one of the hardest hit by the disease, with an estimated 5,700,000 South Africans living with HIV/AIDS in 2007, according to a UNAIDS report.

Women are at the greatest risk of being infected, particularly the young; recent studies show that four in every five people with HIV or AIDS in South Africa are women between the ages of 20 and 24.

Quarraisha calls the gel – which so far has shown no real side effects -- the great "hope for women around the world. Today, although we don't yet have the microbicide, the results signal hope for [them]," she says. "They now have something that's 39 percent more effective than nothing."

Having something is, of course, monumental, as evidenced by the response from the more than 900 South African women who participated in the study. Many of them are from KwaZulu-Natal, a hotbed for HIV. They, like many other women in the region, are particularly susceptible to infection due to men who refuse to wear condoms or sexual violence.

And because the gel looks and feels a lot like a lubricant, the researchers say, women can use it without their partner knowing.

I believe that's true, because after the press conference, I got a chance to hold it in my hand.

The gel is clear and sort of sticky with a cool, even consistency. It has virtually no smell, and it tastes – yes, I went there – kind of salty, like saline. For these reasons, it would probably be fairly undetectable – even if you're engaging in oral sex.

Researchers also plan to test its effectiveness in anal sex – in fact, they plan to run a battery of tests for safety and effectiveness over the next few years in an attempt to bring the gel to market by 2013.

The Karims can hardly wait for the day it's made available to the world's most vulnerable populations.

Salim says, "Our estimates show that if we would implement Tenofovir gel in a way similar to the way we did it in the trial, we could prevent 1.3 million new HIV infections and more than 800,00 deaths over the next 20 years in South Africa alone."