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African microbicides call at conference

A newly launched African-led initiative will call on African leaders to face up to the reality that people are having anal sex in their countries and engage in research and programs that will lead to new ways to prevent the spread of HIV.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

19th April 2012 14:02

Alessia Valenza

International Rectal Microbicide Advocates (IRMA) will release the On the Map: Ensuring Africa’s Place in Rectal Microbicide Research and Advocacy plan at the international Microbicides Conference in Sydney’s Darling Harbour today. The report is the result of a consultation that took place in Ethiopia in December with African and international stakeholders and calls for activities designed to engage Africans, including a knowledge, attitudes and behaviours study on anal sex, advocacy for increased condom-compatible lubricant access, and communication and education activities.

A cornerstone of IRMA’s Project ARM (Africa for Rectal Microbicides) initiative, the report outlines priority actions to ensure Africa fully engages in rectal microbicide research and advocacy activities including the integration of safe anal sex messages into HIV prevention programs.

“For far too long, the operating principle concerning the HIV epidemic in Africa has been that it is solely heterosexual, and that sexual transmission is entirely driven by unprotected vaginal intercourse between men and women,” IRMA chair Jim Pickett said.

“But an increasing body of evidence tells us quite clearly that unprotected anal intercourse is happening all across the continent — amongst heterosexuals as well as gay men, other men who have sex with men (MSM), and transgender individuals.”

“We still face significant hurdles regarding human rights for gay men, MSM, and transgender individuals in Africa, but the collective, long-term efforts of advocates and scientists are indeed lifting the denial around anal sex in the African context,” Dr Morenike Ukpong of Nigeria’s New HIV Vaccines and Microbicides Advocacy Society said.

“Great efforts have long been underway to develop safe and effective vaginal microbicides for African women. We need the same level of commitment and resources for the development of safe, effective, acceptable and accessible rectal microbicides for Africans regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Ukpong is one of the architects of Project ARM.

Speaking from the conference, Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) executive director Rob Lake told the Star Observer he welcomed the report and said there was a sense of excitement at the pace of development of microbicide technology.

“Anything that gives people new tools and new things to work with is incredibly welcome,” Lake said. “Both vaginal and rectal microbicides are going to be really significant tools for use there and seeing this research progress further is fantastic.

“One of the highlights of the opening of this conference is how quickly the science has progressed. Two years ago, the last time this conference was held, people felt a bit despairing. They felt there were a lot of things that were vaguely promising but there was not a lot of good news.

“One of the things that has characterised this conference is it’s the first that people actually know that microbicides work. There’s more research and work to be done to make them more effective but we know they work and so this is really fantastic news.

“We’re getting much closer to when and where we can use these microbicides we’ve been talking about for a long time as theoretical.”

Microbicides are products such as gels or lubricants that could be applied in the rectum or the vagina to reduce the risk of HIV infection by killing the virus at the point of exposure.