With the successful development of a vaccine still nowhere in sight, U.N. AIDS chief Peter Piot said a gel designed to thwart the transmission of the AIDS virus during sex would be the next best thing.
"Where we have better hope is something at least as important, and that is a so-called microbicide," Piot said, adding there were currently about 15 HIV/AIDS microbicide products being tested around the world. "Conceptually, it's straightforward, whereas with the vaccine we still don't know where to go."
"We are, in the most optimistic scenario, I would say three years, four years away. Currently we are dealing with trials that deal with thousands and thousands of women."
The microbicide would come in the form of a gel or an ovule that's put in the vagina before intercourse and immediately kills the virus upon contact. Piot compared it to a contraceptive spermicide.
Researchers around the globe have been working on a vaccine since the discovery of the AIDS virus over 20 years ago. So far only one vaccine candidate has undergone a large-scale clinical trial, and results proved disappointing. Only two other candidate vaccines are in human trials right now, in Thailand and the United States, Piot said.
"We don't even know for a HIV/AIDS vaccine what are the elements in the immune response that protect us, what kind of antibodies should we try to stimulate," Piot said.
Nearly half the 39.4 million people infected with HIV worldwide are female. Three-quarters of all HIV-positive women live in sub-Saharan Africa. About 57 percent of the adults with HIV are women.
Women often have to rely on whether their male partner is faithful and uses a condom, Piot said. Abstinence is often not an option, especially in marriage, and negotiating the use of a condom within any relationship in any culture is difficult.