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A triple-action gel could offer women greater protection from HIV infection than any other treatment currently being tested, say researchers.

In research published online today (31 October) by Nature, US-based scientists tested the vaginal gel — called a microbicide — on monkeys, then infected them with a mixture of HIV and a related virus that infects primates.

The gel contained three components that block the virus in different ways. The combination's 100 per cent success rate — compared with 75 per cent when any single component was used — raises hopes that it could successfully protect women from getting HIV.

Gels currently being tested on people need to be applied to the vagina just before sex. The combination gel, however, could be applied several hours before. This could empower women to protect themselves if their partners disapprove of condoms.

So far no anti-HIV microbicide has been approved for human use — the only one to complete tests so far contained a detergent that damaged vaginal tissue. Five single-action gels are, however, undergoing clinical trials in Africa, which are due to end in 2007.

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