Mixed feelings over HIV prevention gel…

// 25 February 2008

On the one hand I am ecstatic that researchers seem to have got a step closer to finding a new way to prevent the spread of HIV. On the other hand I am saddened that scientific research again privileges men’s rights over women’s bodies.

Lets take the negative first – creating something that means women don’t rely on men’s willingness to use a condom is a double edged sword. Yes it means more ability to protect themselves but it also means less in ability to protect oneself from other sexually communicable issues including pregnancy. Plus it’s looking at the problem from the wrong perspective – the problem isn’t that women can’t protect themselves but that men feel it’s fine to insist on unprotected sex and will enforce that through violence and coercion. That’s the real problem. I can forsee two things happening here which distress me greatly. One is men claiming their coerced sex or rape was “less bad” because they used this new gel and two women being blamed if they contract HIV now there is a new preventative method available (or at least will be soon).

Take this quote from the article….

Scientists are grappling for a means by which women, who are physically more at risk from AIDS infection than men, can protect themselves without having to rely on male consent to wear a condom.

From News Info

This hides the fact that women’s physical vulnerability is also because HIV is more easily transmitted through broken tissue such as that which occurs during a rape (not ignoring that male-to-female transmission is biologically easier than female-to-male transmission). Providing another tool in the kit of denials to wear a condom isn’t necessarily the best way forward.

On the other hand I am glad the research is continuing…but, word of warning, all they have found so far is a gel which is apparently not harmful to women, it’s rates of success in preventing HIV transmission have not yet been assessed.

Comments From You

Helen // Posted 26 February 2008 at 10:46 am

There are other advantages of topical microbicides (the HIV-prevention gels) – they are relatively cheap to make (compared to anti-retroviral therapy, the drugs given to people like health care workers who get needle-stick injuries). They are easily transportable.

The idea behind them is finding something that is viable in the developing world. (Especially since a vaccine is looking further a further away with every new study…) They are based on several cynical but sadly, probably quite realistic ideas – that rich countries probably won’t ever shell out loads to give the best drugs to poorer countries; that plenty of cultures don’t give women a say in their sex life, particularly after they’ve married someone – if he wants sex, he gets it; and that in many cultures a large proportion of people may be HIV positive but still want children, so they need a way of having sex.

I do take your point, and obviously I don’t feel it’s ok for women to be forced or coerced into sex, by their husband or anyone else. But at the same time, health care research must, if it is to be any use, look for solutions for the world we actually live in, not the one we want to. I hope there will be a day when all women can control their own sex lives, but I don’t want to wait until that day to prevent them from getting HIV, if it can be done sooner.

In terms of its actual efficacy, the gels are getting better. They aren’t and probably never will be 100% effective, as they aim to prevent transmission rather than actually killing the virus. But – as mentioned above – sadly the researchers are probably right that us rich countries won’t pay for anything better than bog-standard for people we’ve never met. And something is better than nothing.

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