Women march over delay in releasing anti-HIV gel

2012-04-27 00:00

WOMEN — and a handful of men — carried placards and marched in Pietermaritzburg yesterday demanding the HIV prevention vaginal gel tenofovir.

The gel has been proven to inhibit the transmission of the HI virus. Studies confirming its efficacy were released 19 months ago, but to date the gel has not been supplied to women.

Some of the protesters were participants in a tenofovir gel trial research programme conducted from 2007 to 2010 in the Vulindlela and Durban areas.

The Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (Caprisa) said the preliminary study revealed the gel could reduce the risk of HIV infection by 39% and by 59% when used consistently.

Caprisa then applied to the Medicines Control Council (MCC) in November 2010 to provide post-trial access to the gel.

Scientist Quarraisha Abdool Karim said she was embarrassed to tell participants that they were still waiting for the MCC’s decision before they can use the gel again.

“More than anything we need an answer,” Karim added.

She said she would forward the memoranda to Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and other stakeholders.

She said the gel would empower women because they would no longer need to depend totally on men to protect themselves from HIV.

Siyayifuna i-gel (We want the gel),” the marchers chanted.

To distribute the gel, Caprisa needs approval from the MCC.

Irene Smith (25) from Durban said the gel worked for her.

“I really felt protected when I was using the gel, but not anymore,” Smith said.

The participants received a R150 stipend every month for taking part in the clinical trial.

“Most women here are unemployed, but R150 is too little considering that we’re part of this big project,” Smith added.

Another gel user said she did not have any side effects from using the gel. She has used the anti-HIV gel for four years.

“As women we need this gel. We’re fighting because our men don’t want to use condoms,” she told The Witness.

Women’s Voices for HIV Prevention Gel spokesperson Gethwana Mahlase said the anti-HIV gel could save lives.

“We’re mourning the lives of our daughters, mothers and sisters who have died of HIV,” Mahlase said.

The director-general of the Health Department, Malebona Precious Matsoso, said she was equally concerned about the delay.

“The MCC is an independent body and as the department we can’t interfere. We want this matter to be resolved urgently,” Matsoso said.

The chairperson of the MCC, Professor Peter Eagles, said there were questions asked of Caprisa and he was not certain if all had been answered.

“It’s not that we’re inactive. As the MCC we’re there to make a difference and our anxieties have to be met as well. We don’t look for opportunities to delay,” said Eagles.

He said generally it took the MCC six months to process applications, unless there was outstanding information.

“The drug has lots of benefits, but it’s still unknown and we have to investigate … if we make a wrong decision we’re liable for those people’s lives,” he added.

Eagles said the MCC would issue a statement next week.

• gabisile.ngcobo@witness.co.za

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