Rewind the clock just over 30 years and you’ll find medical research at a standstill, up against a profound illness that was originally labelled as only affecting gay men. You might have guessed it, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the subsequent Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were first diagnosed in Australia in 1982, and the first death due to AIDS in Australia was recorded in 1983.
Originally HIV was thought to only be passed on as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but time soon revealed that the virus could be transmitted from mother to baby, through needle sharing and through blood contact as well. HIV weakens the immune system and can result in AIDS, which manifests in a set of complex complications and symptoms.
Despite successful awareness-raising media campaigns, Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs) that allow for the swap of used needles and syringes for sterile ones, and HIV-preventing medication, Australia has seen a rise in the number of HIV cases in recent years. In 2013, there were approximately 26 000 Australians with HIV, with one in seven unaware they were infected with the virus.
It is fair to speculate that the rise may be due to the increased awareness of the illness, which leads to a higher number of reported cases. It is also possible that the increase in HIV is simply due to a lack of willingness to use condoms, or perhaps it is a reflection of the sexually active generations who are greater risk takers than previous generations.
Some of you might remember the scare-tactic media campaign of the 1980s showing the grim reaper having a fun night out at the bowling alley. That ad is believed to have caused enough discomfort at the time to have encouraged safe sex practices. Perhaps we need another equally frightening ad in the modern age to continue to make people aware of the needs of safe sex.
"Don’t get too excited (pun intended) though, the new condom dubbed the ‘HIV-killing condom’ is already being criticized by researchers"
Medical professionals are now able to provide an anti-HIV or anti-retroviral medication administered over four weeks to prevent the establishment of the virus if treated within three days of exposure, but it is not 100% effective. There is no vaccine for HIV, so prevention of the spread of the virus depends on awareness and behavioural changes including the use of condoms.
The most effective prevention to date has been the use of condoms, together with a water-based lubricant to help reduce the chance of the condom breaking. Condoms alone prevent the contraction of most STIs, some of which increase the likelihood of contracting HIV (such as herpes).
Recent research into an antimicrobial agent known as VivaGel has shown the gel is 99.9% effective at deactivating STI viruses. VivaGel is a compound that was developed by Starpharma, an Australian company, which attaches itself to targets on the viruses, thereby blocking the virus and preventing infection. A VivaGel coated condom is Starpharma’s answer to the continuing spread of STI viruses and is now the most effective prevention of STI contraction. The pharmaceutical company has agreements to globally supply the condom through Ansell Limited and Okamoto Industries Inc, two of the world’s largest condom suppliers.
Don’t get too excited (pun intended) though, the new condom dubbed the ‘HIV-killing condom’ is already being criticized by researchers over potential issues with the continuous use of the gel.
Despite a clinical trial of 36 women having been conducted in 2005, which found the vaginal application of VivaGel safe and tolerated as well as a placebo, other studies suggest that using the gel twice daily for 14 days resulted in low grade adverse events in 53% of the sample of 36 women. A number of concerning symptoms were found in women using the gel compared with those who were given a placebo. Another study suggests that use of the gel was generally well tolerated compared with the use of a placebo, despite a higher incidence of low grade adverse events.
While it has not been confirmed if the condom and gel combination is safe for long term or heavy use, let’s hope that medical research and development will be able to reach a conclusion soon. The best outcome would be that this combination will lead to an effective prevention, if not vaccine or cure, for this terrible illness.