An experimental gel that contains a drug used to treat the AIDS virus may prevent half of genital herpes cases in women, according to a new South African study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The annual rates of herpes simplex virus type-2 infection (also known as HSV-2) were 10.2 percent using tenofovir gel, as compared to 21 percent using a placebo gel.
Lead author Dr. Salim Abdool Karim of the Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa told Reuters that if the gel was officially put into production, and “if a woman was concerned about acquiring herpes simplex virus type-2, this would be the best protection available.”
“The problem is, right now it’s not available. And taking tenofovir tablets instead of the gel doesn’t have the same benefit. You see some protection with tablets, but the levels of protection are much lower.”
HSV-2 is the strain of the herpes virus that causes most cases of genital herpes. In the United States, 16 percent of individuals ages 14 to 49 have herpes.
Herpes affects about one in five sexually active adults worldwide — approximately 417 million people ages 15 to 49. The herpes virus is the most common reason for developing genital ulcers. In South Africa, the rate of herpes infection is between 50 and 60 percent, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is estimated at 80 percent in women and 50 percent in men.
Although condoms provide the best protection against herpes, Karim mentions that even condoms are limited, because the virus can shed and spread to other unprotected parts of the body.
Half of the 422 women in the herpes study were given the tenofovir gel and the other half were given a placebo gel. The women were told to insert the gel 12 hours before sexual intercourse and again within 12 hours after sexual intercourse.
Results showed that the gel reduced contracting the herpes virus by almost 50 percent. When levels of the drug were elevated in the vagina, the annual rate of herpes dropped from 16 percent to less than 6 percent, compared to when there were no traces of the gel.
However, researchers are concerned if women will really use the gel in order to prevent herpes.
“We’ve had a mixed bag of results in trying to get women to use tenofovir gel for HIV protection. The main concern has been many of these young individuals who are at highest risk for herpes and HIV don’t actually consider themselves at risk. They don’t appreciate their risk. It’s the same for alcohol consumption, dangerous driving or smoking or any of these things.”
As open genital herpes sores also increase the risk of HIV infection, the new experimental gel could not only reduce the incidence of herpes, but also HIV.
[Image via Chris Hondros / Getty Images]