Women can now prevent HIV infection by using a vaginal ring with an antiretroviral drug every month.
This is the main finding of two studies conducted on 4 500 women across Eastern and Southern Africa.
The studies have found that the vaginal ring provides 30% protection against HIV infection in women.
The results of the studies were released at a conference on retro-viruses and opportunistic infections in the United States on Monday.
For the first time, two studies have shown that a female-controlled HIV prevention method can safely reduce new infections.
The International Partnership for Microbicides and the Microbicide Trials Network conducted the studies.
The two trials took place in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa on women, aged between 18 and 45, from 2012.
The two studies, called "the Ring Study and Aspire", looked at the efficacy of the vaginal ring, which contains the antiretroviral, Dapivirine.
Dr Zeda Rosenberg who is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Partnership for Microbicides says, “The ring works by slowly releasing an antiretroviral drug for prevention not for treatment into the vagina. So a woman puts in the ring herself and wears it for a one month period and the drug is slowly released from the ring as long as she keeps it in consistently and the drug gets into the cells that HIV, the virus would infect and it blocks it from infecting,” says Rosenberg.
It is good because women are at a high risk because of our biological makeup of contracting HIV.
More than half of the world's estimated 37-million HIV-positive people are women. In sub-Saharan Africa, women account for 60% of all HIV-positive people.
And young women, between the ages of 15 and 24, are most at risk of infection. The two studies showed that women over the age of 21 had a higher level of protection - at 61% in the Aspire study and at 37 per cent in the Ring Study.
“And then even further when we started looking at the women in the dapivirine ring arm who we found used the ring the most consistently they had even higher levels of protection, so we feel very strongly that if you use the ring consistently there will be a very good level of protection but the ring has to be used all the time,” say Rosenberg.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has welcomed the results, saying they're an important scientific achievement for women's health.
“All the time the processes that we have got are all favouring men for instance the use of male condoms, the issue of medical male circumcision, there was nothing for women which they can hold in their hands and be in control of their own destiny. This is the first time that something like this is happening, we welcome that very much especially that we know in our country HIV is a very feminised disease so these are welcome news indeed,” says Motsoaledi.
The Treatment Action Campaign says fighting the Aids epidemic means focusing on people who are most at risk of HIV infection, and they’re women.
“It is good because women are at a high risk because of our biological makeup of contracting HIV. Now we are speaking of 2363 young girls who get infected on a weekly basis. So whatever that is coming as long as it is scientifically proven that it will prevent HIV for women and everybody then we are welcoming it,” says Portia Serote is from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
The important question now is when and how women can access this vaginal ring.
But researchers and health authorities first have to begin a long process of getting approval for this product to be used. It could be years before the ring joins other HIV-prevention technologies such as condoms, medical male circumcision and oral HIV-prevention drugs.