AIDS drugs can reduce risk of infection among heterosexuals

Once-daily pill helps prevent HIV/AIDS infection

NARRATOR: AIDS drugs designed to treat HIV can also be used to reduce dramatically the risk of infection among heterosexual couples, two studies conducted in Africa showed for the first time on Wednesday.

The findings add to growing evidence that the type of medicines prescribed since the mid-1990s to treat people who are already sick may also hold the key to slowing or even halting the spread of the sexually transmitted disease.

The research involving couples in Kenya, Uganda and Botswana found that giving daily AIDS drugs reduced infection rates by an average of at least 62 percent when compared with placebo.

The larger of the two studies examined 4,758 couples in Kenya and Uganda in which one partner was HIV-positive and one was negative. Those negative partners taking Gilead Sciences Inc’s tenofovir, or Viread, had on average 62 percent fewer infections.

UNAIDS Chief Scientific Advisor Cate Hankins was asked how long it would take to make the pill available to the wider public.

TAPE: It's a bit of a challenging question because the pill is available. It's used in treatment and so we need to do a lot of thinking about expanding the amount of drug that is available so that we are not in any way jeopardising treatment possibilities for people. So I think one of the first things is going to be for the World Health Organization and UNAIDS to convene a meeting to look at the information from the two trials and to think through what are the things that need to be thought about – how frequently do you need to have an HIV test if you are taking a pill like that? What should be the monitoring frequency? Are there concerns about drug resistance? Will people keep on using condoms and using other measures because everything we have right now for HIV-prevention is partially protective and it needs to be combined with other measures.

NARRATOR: UNAIDS Chief Scientific Advisor Cate Hankins.

Director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan said in a statement that "effective new HIV prevention tools are urgently needed and these studies could have enormous impact in preventing heterosexual transmission.”

In an indication of the importance of the latest evidence, Chan said the UN health agency would now work with countries to use the new findings to implement better protection strategies.

Around 33 million people worldwide have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, most living in Africa and Asia. Only about half know their HIV status, and the WHO hopes that news of an effective approach to prevention will encourage more people to get tested.

 This is Donn Bobb reporting.

Duration: 2’50″

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