WASHINGTON -- Thousands of women in Africa can volunteer for major new research to see whether inserting a vaginal ring coated with an anti-AIDS drug could protect them from HIV infection, U.S. scientists announced yesterday.

Giving women tools to protect themselves when their partners won't use a condom is crucial for battling the epidemic. Women make up half of the 34.2 million people worldwide living with HIV, even more -- 60 percent -- in hard-hit Africa.

But developing these so-called microbicides has proved a hurdle. Previous research found an anti-AIDS vaginal gel offered partial protection, but women may have a hard time using it every time they have sex. The vaginal ring, in contrast, would have to be inserted just once a month for continuing protection, prompting hope that it will prove more effective.

The device marks an attempt at "the next generation of women-focused prevention tools," Dr. Carl Dieffenbach of the U.S. National Institutes of Health said in announcing the new research at the International AIDS Conference.

"We need options that fit readily into women's lives," added Dr. Sharon Hillier of the University of Pittsburgh and the Microbide Trials Network, which is conducting the new NIH-funded study. -- AP

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