- While around the world a vast majority of people with AIDS are men, Africa has long been the glaring exception: Nearly 60% are women. And while there are many theories, no one has been able to prove one.
- In a public health clinic in Otimati in South Africa, a team of Norwegian infectious disease specialists think they may have found a new explanation. It is far too soon to say whether they are right. But even sceptics say the explanation is biologically plausible. And if it is proved correct, a low-cost solution has the potential to prevent thousands of infections every year.
- The team believes that African women are more vulnerable to HIV because of a chronic, undiagnosed parasitic disease: genital schistosomiasis. The disease also known as bilharzia and snail fever is caused by parasitic worms picked up in infested river water.
- It is marked by sores in the vaginal canal that may serve as entry points for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Also, the the worms and eggs in the sores attract CD4 cells, the immune system’s sentinels, and those are the very cells that HIV. attacks.
- The worms can be killed by a drug that costs as little as 8 cents a pill. The team is trying to determine whether that will heal the sores in young women.
- Some prominent AIDS experts doubt the schistosomiasis theory, pointing out, for example, that urban women raised far from infested water also die of AIDS. But proponents of the theory say that two decades ago, many experts were just as sceptical of the idea that circumcision protected men against HIV.
- But the idea is slowly gaining ground. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nation, the United States’s National Institutes of Health, and the Danish and Norwegian governments have all given some grant support.