A new emphasis on barrier methods for preventing the spread of AIDS and a major new clinical trial of techniques to prevent transmission from mothers to children were announced here Tuesday as the 11th International Conference on AIDS focused on women’s health concerns.
Although the HIV infection rate for women in the United States is growing alarmingly, the number of women infected is still low and the rate among some groups, such as pregnant women, is stabilizing. But around the world, 42 percent of AIDS victims are female, and experts predict that by the end of the century most new infections will be in women.
In a speech to the 15,000 delegates, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala announced that the National Institutes of Health will sharply increase funding for research on vaginal gels, foams and creams to help women protect themselves from HIV. Those funds will triple this year to $25 million and will total $100 million during the next four years.
Later, Dr. Peter Piot, head of the U.N.’s anti-AIDS program, announced a major clinical trial of an inexpensive new technique for preventing HIV transmission during childbirth. It will involve the drug AZT and be conducted among 1,900 HIV-positive women in Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda.
An estimated 40,000 Americans are infected with HIV each year, about 19 percent of them women. That is nearly triple the 7 percent figure for women in 1985. The problem is particularly severe among minority women. A black or Hispanic woman is 17 times as likely to be infected as an Anglo woman, according to Dr. John Ward of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is some promise for pregnant women, Dr. Susan Davis of CDC told the meeting. Overall, nearly two of every 1,000 pregnant women in this country are HIV-positive, a total of 6,230 women in 1994, and that rate has been steady for several years. Encouragingly, Davis said, the rate is dropping in the Northeast, the region with the highest rate of infection.
In that region, the infection rate for pregnant women was 4.1 per 1,000 in 1989, but it dropped to 3.2 per 1,000 in 1994, Davis reported. She attributed the decline to better prevention programs for women.
In the developing world, however, prevention programs for women largely have been failures.
NIH-sponsored studies of the spermicide nonoxynol-9, which kills the AIDS virus, are already under way in Cameroon, and the United Nations is beginning a larger study of nonoxynol-9 in the Ivory Coast, South Africa and Thailand.
But that drug causes inflammation in many women.
“Some people think the inflammation might make transmission easier rather than harder,” noted Dr. William Paul, head of the U.S. Office of AIDS Research in Washington, D.C.