Study of anti-AIDS vaginal ring begins in Africa

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WASHINGTON (AP) - AIDS specialists are hearing a call to expand help for women far beyond a global focus on pregnancy.

Many countries have increased treatment of HIV-infected pregnant women to lower their chances of infecting their babies.

But UNICEF’s Dr. Chewe Luo says most countries don’t automatically continue anti-AIDS drugs for those women after their babies are weaned _ important for keeping them healthy long-term. She praised Malawi for starting to do just that.

And she said adolescent girls _ the 10- to 18-year-olds _ are too often ignored by global HIV testing, prevention and treatment programs. Without protecting them, she says, all the investment for healthy babies was for nothing.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

A monthlong HIV blocker that women could use for protection without their partners knowing? Major new research is beginning in Africa to see whether a special kind of vaginal ring just might work.

Giving women tools to protect themselves when their partners won’t use a condom is crucial for battling the AIDS epidemic. Women already make up half of the 34.2 million people worldwide living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; even more _ 60 percent _ in hard-hit Africa are women.

But developing what are called microbicides has proved difficult. Previous research found an experimental anti-AIDS vaginal gel offered partial protection, but remembering to use it every time they have sex would be a hurdle for some women.

The new attempt: a vaginal ring that’s inserted once a month and slowly oozes an anti-AIDS drug into the surrounding tissue.

The work marks an attempt at “the next generation of women-focused prevention tools,” Dr. Carl Dieffenbach of the National Institutes of Health said Tuesday in announcing the new research at the International AIDS Conference.

“We need options that fit readily into women’s lives,” added Dr. Sharon Hillier of the University of Pittsburgh and the Microbide Trials Network, which is conducting the NIH-funded study.

Developed by the nonprofit International Partnership for Microbicides, the silicone ring contains an anti-AIDS drug named dapivirine. Unlike vaginal rings sold today in the U.S., the experimental ring doesn’t contain birth control, for now; the focus is on HIV prevention only.

Early-stage studies suggested the ring could work, and women said they liked using it better than a gel, said Dr. Saidi Kapiga of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Now come the large studies needed to prove whether the ring truly works.

The NIH-funded study, named ASPIRE, will enroll nearly 3,500 women in Malawi, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. They’ll receive either a dapivirine-containing vaginal ring or an identical-looking drug-free ring, to be inserted once a month for a year.

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