Friday, February 2, 2007
HIV/AIDS is the pandemic of our time. The statistics are staggering: 22 million people have died from AIDS, 42 million are living with AIDS, and there are 14,000 new infections every day. It is estimated that the number of children living with HIV today is 1.2 million and that by the year 2010 there will be 25 million AIDS orphans. Sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest hit by the epidemic, is home to 21.5 million adults and 1 million children living with HIV.
Although women are biologically more vulnerable to HIV infection than men, the stark differences between male and female susceptibility are not widely understood. Reasons for this disparity in biological susceptibility include the fact that semen contains more HIV particles than do cervical or vaginal secretions, and it remains in the vaginal tract for a longer period of time than vaginal fluids remain on the penis.
In societies with deeply rooted sexism, the inferior social position of women creates a vulnerability that compounds the problem of biological susceptibility: Women are afflicted by a proliferation of misinformation about HIV/AIDS and by a lack of access to reliable information and prevention services. Unfortunately, they sometimes face these problems even in the United States, so the lack of any female-controlled prevention tool is one of the largest problems contributing to the epidemic today, leaving many women all over the world defenseless and desperate for a method to protect themselves from HIV.
While there is no single solution to this crisis, there are options that can restore hope and agency to women at risk. The development and distribution of microbicides would be a major victory in the ongoing battle against new HIV infection.
The term “microbicides” describes a range of products that, when applied topically, help prevent the sexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). For women who do not have the social or economic power to demand fidelity and condom use, microbicides would provide an effective prevention and protection tool that does not require consent from their partners. Moreover, microbicides can be contraceptive or non-contraceptive, allowing women who desire to get pregnant to do so without risking the chance of contracting HIV. It has been estimated that the use of even a moderately effective microbicide in lower-income countries could prevent 2.5 million HIV/STD infections in just three years.