By Heather Boerner
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — From where Linda-Gail Bekker sits as director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre in Cape Town, science has been losing ground against HIV for years, especially when it comes to young women. After all, in some parts of the country, girls who are 15 today have an 80 percent chance of acquiring HIV in their lifetimes.
“We’re really in the trenches here,” she said. “We have to bring all the technology, tools—you know, innovations—we can find to start turning that war around.”
So when researchers announced at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, last month that they’d linked a single strain of vaginal bacteria to higher HIV rates, it seemed like they had started to make inroads against the virus in a unique way: by identifying weaknesses in the communities of bacteria that occupy the vagina—weaknesses that could open the door for HIV. But additional research out of the conference complicates that finding and highlights how far there is to go.
The good news is that, as researchers uncover the complexity of those communities, they are also finding ways to strengthen them, crafting new tools that not only could make women less susceptible to HIV but also improve their health overall. And it highlights the vagina as a powerful HIV prevention tool in itself, said Alison Roxby, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies how the injectable contraceptive Depo-Provera impacts HIV acquisition.