Last year AIDS researchers gave fellow scientists a standing ovation when they announced they'd developed a gel that reduced HIV infections by 39%. Now a new study has proven that the product can also protect against herpes. The gel was originally intended to cut HIV infection rates in Africa, but now there's talk of bringing it to the U.S. too.
Tenofovir, the active ingredient in the gel, doesn't offer total protection from these STDs, but it's a huge development because women can use it on their own, even without their partner's knowledge. The New York Times reports that last year a trial conducted in South Africa found that in addition to reducing HIV infections, it cut herpes infections by 51%. In women who used the gel consistently, those figures jumped to a 54% protection rate for HIV and 62% for herpes. This year, researchers conducted a follow-up study in a lab to explain those results, and they've discovered that tenofovir can lower herpes viral levels by 99% in labratory cultures.
Researchers now have a better understanding of how the gel works. In human tissue, tenofovir disrupts an enzyme that herpes uses to make copies of itself. When taken as a pill tenofir can only protect against HIV, so applying it directly to the vaginal wall is key for fighting both diseases.
Herpes is much more common than HIV is the U.S., and Gilead, the company that makes the gel, is now considering if it should try to bring the drug to America. The process could cost millions and the company probably wouldn't be ready to submit data to the FDA for three or four years. Yet Dr. Anna Wald, a herpes specialist at the University of Washington, says, "I'm confident American women would accept it." In trials American and South African heterosexual couples liked the gel, and it may be possible to promote it as a sex-enhancing lubricant that just happens to cut STD infections. (Gay men reported it was too watery for anal sex, so the company is working on a new formula.) Even if it's years away, the idea that there's a product that gives women control over herpes and HIV protection, and it can be easily and subtly applied, is pretty exciting.
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