September 7, 2011
Since last summer's CAPRISA study results, microbicides as an HIV prevention tool for women have finally become more of a reality than a fantasy. But one of many questions that HIV/AIDS advocates have about this vaginal gel, which is aimed at protecting women against HIV, has been, "What will it take to get women to adhere to taking this gel?"
One Rhode Island researcher believes she may have an answer to that question.
Kate Morrow believes that sexual pleasure is the key to microbicides living out their full potential. This is why in her study, Morrow's Project LINK, female participants were asked all sorts of questions about the gel itself, including the insertion of the gel, whether simulating sex with a dildo made the gel leak out, and whether or not sex was enjoyable with the gel.
Funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Project LINK began in 2006 and has examined about 350 women's experiences of vaginal gels -- none of which actually contained drugs. Data collection is complete and Morrow hopes to have results in the next year.
Those results could help determine what properties would make women willing -- or even eager -- to use a vaginal microbicide.
But there is no simple answer. Women's responses to the gel could depend on how old they are, where they are in their menstrual cycles or whether they are bothered by things like leakage and stickiness.
"How do I make this product feel good enough -- or not feel like anything -- such that women can use it without interrupting their normal day-to-day sexual lives? Or could it actually make their sexual lives better?" asked Morrow.
Studying pleasure is not something Morrow does for fun. She sees it as a "medical necessity" for preventing the spread of HIV. Even a partially-effective microbicide that is pleasant enough to gain wide use could dramatically reduce new infections. And a highly effective microbicide that women refuse to use won't work at all.
While microbicides were mostly conceived as a contraceptive tool for women who cannot demand condom use from male partners, not all couples have those same disempowering gender dynamics. It's because of this that Marrow created Project Mist, a study aimed at getting reactions to microbicides from women and men. Data for that study should be collected by the end of this year.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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