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A breakthrough for HIV prevention?

This week a breakthrough for HIV prevention was announced in Science. AIDS researchers in South Africa just completed a long-term study of Tenofovir Gel, and found that the gel, inserted into the vagina before sex, results in a 40% HIV protection rate for women. With 900 women being followed up for 30 months, the results look very solid, and potentially even better than the headline figure of 39% protection. As with all such studies, the protection rate given is with average usage, not ideal usage. The average study participant only actually used the gel for ~75% of sexual intercourse occasions. For the "high adherers", the group using the vaginal gel for >80% of sexual intercourse occasions, the protection rate was 54%. How important is this breakthrough? In a way, it is both bigger and smaller than the headlines would suggest.

A new tool to fight HIV spread

In the age of vaccines with efficacy rates of >99%, a ~40% protection rate sounds rather poor. Furthermore, this is currently a form of protection only against heterosexual transmission of HIV to women, with no data yet on any protection granted to males having sex with a HIV+ woman or as an anal gel for male homosexual transmission. HIV acquisition by non-sexual routes, such as intravenous drug use, will of course be unaffected by the gel. This is a very poor efficacy rate when compared to condom use. A Cochrane meta-analysis has determined that consistent use of condoms results in an 85% protection rate against HIV, which can go as high as 95% with correct usage. The protective effect is only on par with that of male circumcision, which multiple randomized trials have found protects males from heterosexual HIV transmission at a rate of around 60%.

Is the new gel then completely redundant? A downgrade from the condom? No, not for a key population group - the women of southern Africa. The ten countries of southern Africa together constitute 35% of global HIV cases, with HIV reaching a hyper-endemic situation with 10-30% of adults infected with HIV. In this region, heterosexual spread is the dominant form of HIV transmission, and indeed the risk factor of greatest magnitude at the population level goes to married women. Condom usage in Africa is generally very poor, with an average of only 4.6 condoms available per man per year, due to low demand. Only 7% of women in southern Africa reported using a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse with a regular partner. In particular, women who are food insecure are 70% less likely to use a condom when having sex, with less personal control over sexual relationships. Other women may not use a condom during sex for more personal reference - such as trying to conceive. A vaginal gel therefore provides (partial) HIV protection for the first time to any women who would not otherwise use a condom during sex, either because of personal choice, lack of sexual control, or through a desire to become pregnant.

The other important consideration is that any protection results in a greater number of cases being prevented than the effectiveness of the protection to the individual. This is because each case stopped also prevents the flow-on cases which would have spread from the infected individual. It has been estimated that a weakly protective vaccine, with only a 50% protection rate and only given to 30% of the population, would reduce new HIV infections by more than half, over 15 years. These figures are comparable to the results for Tenofovir Gel, so if the maximal potential is realized, this breakthrough has the ability to halve new African HIV cases.

A tool that will sit idle?

The problem, of course, is that the potential of this gel will not be realized. In many ways, the HIV epidemic is not a problem waiting for a medical solution, but rather a problem waiting for a social and political solution. Consider mother-to-child HIV prevention. Current medical treatment of HIV+ women during pregnancy and after birth reduces the transmission rate to the child by more than 99%. Even in developing countries, the treatment program has over 98% efficacy. And yet these cases, almost entirely preventable under current treatment, make up 15% of global HIV cases and 40% of HIV cases in southern Africa, since only 33% of pregnant HIV+ women in Africa get any form of anti-HIV treatment, let alone the recommended treatment program.

Other strategies, which are already proven to work, could make similar impacts if broadly implemented. Widespread male circumcision would reduce HIV rates by 60% in males and, by reducing prevalence, 30% in females. Comprehensive sexual education focused on preventing new infections can be highly successful. An aggressive campaign of university HIV testing and near universal antiretroviral treatment would be capable of reducing new HIV infections by 95% within 5 years. Just the simple treatment of individuals with genital herpes with current antiherpatic drugs could be expected to reduce transmission of HIV in southern Africa by 50%.

No, a new tool to fight HIV is not going to stop the virus. Realistically, the current tools available could cut new HIV cases by 99% within the decade, if only they were implemented. The true scourge of HIV is that it attacks the marginalised in society, hitting regions of great poverty, infecting those on the receiving side of racial and sexual discrimination. The people that, quite frankly, too many people feel deserve to be sick. Being interwoven with issues of sexuality, drugs, race and poverty, people in power have not only been slow to move - they have often moved in the wrong direction, such as the $15 billion pledged in aid by George W. Bush, with its focus on replacing effective condom use with ineffective "abstinence only" programs.

A major part of the problem is certainly lack of resources, both funding and public health infrastructure. The response to HIV has been delayed, fragmented, inconsistent and grossly under-resourced. Lesotho launched a national voluntary counselling and testing campaign aiming at universal testing, which fell through due to a lack of resources. In South Africa only 28% of HIV+ people have access to antiretrovirals. In Zimbabwe only 4.4% of HIV+ pregnant women are receiving antiretroviral treatment to prevent mother to child transmission. In Nigeria 10% of all HIV transmission events are due to lack of funds for hospitals to screen transfused blood, a situation which requires only funding to remedy. However, funding is not the only impediment to an efficient HIV prevention campaign. Policy makers have repeatedly failed to spend limiting resources on HIV prevention, concentrating on medical treatment without adequate care and support. This is despite the cost of most HIV prevention techniques being well under the $4770 per infection prevented that it would take to create a cost savings compared to simple treatment. What is needed to end the HIV crisis is, in fact, simple in health terms and is difficult only in political implementation – a coordinated and adequately funded approach to integrate evidence-based HIV prevention strategies, in concert with major social and economic development efforts to eliminate gender disparities, race- and sexuality-based discrimination and extreme poverty.

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