Microbicides in the Prevention of HIV Infection
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More than 28 years since the first cases of HIV/AIDS, there is still no cure or vaccine. The worst affected region is sub-Saharan Africa and, increasingly, it is young women who are bearing the brunt of the epidemic. Consequently, there is an urgent need for HIV prevention options for women in developing countries. Microbicides are topical products that can be used vaginally by women to impede sexual transmission of HIV and thus represent one of the most promising prevention strategies. Efficacy trials with early nonspecific microbicide gels have so far been unsuccessful, but the field has now switched its focus to products containing highly potent and highly specific antiretroviral drugs that are easier to use, and can be formulated in a variety of dosage forms to suit individual and regional preferences. However, these products have their own challenges, with a greater likelihood of absorption, and the potential for systemic toxicities or the development of resistance in infected individuals who are unaware of their HIV status. The conduct of clinical trials is complex for all microbicides, with limited availability of trial sites, difficulties in dose selection and safety monitoring, and a lack of a truly objective measure of adherence. Once a microbicide has been shown to be safe and effective, there will need to be a clear pathway to regulatory approval, and the successful launch of a product will depend on having in place appropriate methods for distribution to the women who need it, along with a strategy for ensuring that they use it correctly. This will require substantial effort in terms of education and community engagement, and these activities need to be initiated well in advance of microbicide rollout.