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Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 09:09 GMT
Campaign to save women from HIV
Aids ribbon
Aids is the leading cause of death in Africa
An international project has been launched to develop a microbicide to fight the HIV virus and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The substance would be particularly useful in countries where women find it difficult to persuade their partners to use condoms, say scientists.

A microbicide is any substance that can substantially reduce transmission of sexually transmitted infections when applied either in the vagina or rectum.

An effective microbicide, which must be affordable in poor countries, would be immensely useful

Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development
It could be formulated as a gel, foam sponge or pessary.

South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Cameroon, Zambia and the UK have agreed to take part in the 16m programme, which is being sponsored by the Department for International Development (DFID).

More control

Microbicides offer more choice and control and research has shown that women and their partners in both the developed and the developing world want this type of product for HIV prevention.

Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short said: "There are 30 to 40 million people in the world infected with HIV/Aids, in the next decade it will be 70 million, and it's growing in our own country too.

"More than half the infections are in young people, aged 15 to 25, and more than half of those are women, often those who couldn't choose to say no to sex.

"We need to increase the range of products available that would give women the ability to protect themselves from HIV in ways that they can control.

"An effective microbicide, which must be affordable in poor countries, would be immensely useful."

Research in the UK will be co-ordinated by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Imperial College Faculty of Medicine.

Professor Janet Darbyshire, director of the MRC Clinical Trials Unit said: "We're delighted to be able to work with our colleagues to co-ordinate this very important programme of research into microbicides which we hope will help women throughout the world, but particularly in Africa, to protect themselves against HIV and Aids."

Target women

The US-based Rockefeller Foundation is lobbying to accelerate microbicide development and to ensure products meet critical standards of safety, effectiveness and accessibility for women in most need.

President of the Rockefeller Foundation Professor Gordon Conway said: "Microbicides will offer a better chance of survival for poor women who are disproportionately at risk of contracting HIV/Aids.

"Their future and the future of their children may depend on our political will coupled with urgent and wise investments."

The Terence Higgins Trust has welcomed this initiative.

A spokeswoman said: "International collaboration is key to halting the spread of this devastating epidemic.

"Preventative methods, like this one, must be explored alongside vaccine research and rigorous health promotion efforts.

"It's not acase of either or - we must use every weapon at our disposal."

Aids has become the leading cause of death in Africa and the fourth most common cause of death in the world.

It is estimated that 40 million people are living with HIV and that 14,000 people are infected daily and 8,000 people die of Aids every day.

In Africa, 2 million more women than men are infected with HIV.

The BBC's Ania Lichtarowicz
"There are now two million more women with HIV in Africa than men"
See also:

17 Jan 02 | Health
Development in Aids vaccine hunt
11 Apr 01 | Health
Threat from drug-resistant HIV
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