Updated 29 October 2014

Talking about sex and HIV at HIV R4P

There is lots of talk about sex going on at the Cape Town Convention Centre at the moment: words like anal sex; vaginas and penises pop up in almost every talk. No, this is not the Sexpo – it is HIV R4P.

HIV R4P is the archly-named international conference on biomedical methods of protecting ourselves against getting infected with HIV.

It is wonderfully non-judgemental – who you choose to have sex with, how often and in what manner – is totally irrelevant. The only subject of interest is how you stop a virus from destroying a human body.

The consequences for the intimate and emotional aspects of sex have not been entirely overlooked.

As one of the many top international scientists here, Jared Baeten, professor of global health, medicine and epidemiology at the University of Washington, remarked on

"We must remember that sex is not just a clinical activity. There is a whole generation which has grown up knowing only fear in relation to sex."

But, with more than two million people becoming newly infected last year, we need to throw everything at the virus.

At the ICC in the last week of October 2014, four scientific prevention methods are under the spotlight – none are fail-safe and some are still nowhere near ready for universal use.

Medical male circumcision is the most accessible: it has been proven that a man who is circumcised reducing his risk of getting HIV from an infected partner by at least 60%.

Vaccines are still the holy grail and we are inching closer to finding one that works but we’re not there yet.

Another option being tried is Pre-exposure Prophylaxis: this means someone who is not HIV positive but is at risk takes anti-retrovirals as precaution. It is suggested it is used by an HIV-negative person if their sexual partner is HIV positive.

Or in high risk groups – like the receptive partner in men who have penetrative sex with men.

But obviously it is difficult to persuade someone who is not sick to take drugs which are potentially toxic. And it is very expensive as a public health option.

ReadMale circumcision lowers HIV risk for women

Treatment as prevention does work, however, when taken by an HIV-positive person as it reduces his or her viral load and thus makes them far less likely to infect a partner.

The most promising option is microbicides, which are inserted into the vagina or rectum before and/or after sex.

The results of a big study carried out in Cape Town are due early year and, so far, it is looking very hopeful. HIV R4P is the first global conference to feature the latest research on all forms of biomedical HIV prevention.

ReadThe gels that may stop HIV

About HIV R4P

HIV R4P is the first global conference to feature the latest research on all forms of biomedical HIV prevention, being held at the CTICC until 31 October 2014.

Through both abstract and non-abstract driven sessions, the conference will support cross-fertilization between research on HIV vaccines, microbicides, PrEP, treatment as prevention and other biomedical prevention approaches, while also providing a venue to discuss the research findings, questions and priorities that are specific to advancing each modality. Read more at HIV

Read more:

Over 2.7 million South Africans on antiretrovirals 
Elton John joins forces with US govt against Aids
New clues to HIV origin
Fungus deadly to Aids patients grows on trees


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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