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updated 7/20/2010 12:03:51 PM ET 2010-07-20T16:03:51

South African research that helped produce a promising anti-AIDS gel will change the nature of the fight against the disease, the head of the university that pioneered the research said Tuesday.

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Malegapuru Makgoba, vice chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa's east coast, described the project that created the vaginal gel as a "milestone" for impoverished women, policymakers and scientists in combatting the disease that has plagued the African continent for three decades.

"These research findings will not only significantly alter the shape and form but also the future direction of this devastating epidemic," Makgoba told reporters in the port city of Durban, where most of the researchers are based.

South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has an estimated 5.7 million people infected with HIV, more than any other country. It is the largest recipient of PEPFAR funds.

The researchers say the gel, known as a microbicide, can protect four out of ten women from HIV infection.

The gel, spiked with the AIDS drug tenofovir, cut the risk of HIV infection by 50 percent after one year of use and 39 percent after 2 1/2 years, compared to a gel that contained no medicine.

Additional results proved that the gel was effective in preventing 51 percent of genital herpes infections in women.

Breakthrough gel cuts women's HIV infection risk in half

Scientists believe the cheap and easy-to-use gel could be useful for "women who are unable to successfully negotiate mutual faithfulness or condom use with their male partners," said Dr. Quarraisha Abdool Karim, a leading researcher and co-director of the South African gel program.

She said young women in South Africa bore the brunt of HIV infection.

The study had asked nearly 900 women volunteers in rural areas around Durban to use a gel — some being dummy samples — up to 12 hours before sex and within 12 hours afterward.

At the end of the 30-month trial period, 60 of the 444 women who received dummy gel were infected with HIV while only 38 of the 445 women who used the tenofovir gel were HIV-positive, reflecting a reduction of nearly 50 percent of the HIV infection rate.

California-based Gilead Sciences Inc., which donated the tenofovir used in the study, will allow a nonprofit and a research organization to produce the drug royalty-free for the 95 poorest countries in the world, said an official from the Gilead Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.

The biggest cost of the gel is the plastic applicator — about 32 cents, which hopefully would be lower when mass-produced, researchers said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: HIV gel cuts AIDS infection in half

  1. Closed captioning of: HIV gel cuts AIDS infection in half

    >>> save millions of lives.

    >> dr. nancy snyderman is nbc's chief medical correspondent and explain what this is about.

    >> that is study released in vienna at the international aids society and when the study was released and the numbers were presented to the crowd, there was an eruption of applause because this is perhaps the first step forward in women really being able to protect themselves. it all comes down to a vaginal gel with a medication and found that when women took it before having sexual intercourse , they could reduce the likelihood of getting hiv, the virus that causes aids. 39%. women who used it all the time may be protecting themselves well over 50%. so this is a huge step forward . now, you notice that those numbers nowhere near 100% but here's why it's important. not only does it allow women to protect themselves, not only does it seem like it's an anti-retro viral that works but in south africa being married is a risk factor for getting infected because a woman cannot say no to her husband and deny him sex and because socially men after work visit brothels, seek prostitutes and then infect their wives, if a woman can use this vaginal gel up to 12 hours before intercourse, it is one step closer to protecting her. and then if it's brought to market for maybe 25 cents a dose, we may for the first time have a way for women to say, i no longer will give my life just because i've had sexual intercourse with an fekted man.

    >> nancy, quickly, what are the prospects of bringing this to the united states ?

    >> very good. tony fauci said we are not close to a cure yet but at least giving women a chance to protect themselves. if we can bring it to market cheaply and obviously it's easy for women to use and women use it privately and don't have to tell an eye they're using it, very important, i think this is a big global step forward .

    >> doctor, with what may have been the biggest news to hit the african continent potentially in decades. thanks very much.

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