The World Health Organization and the United Nations AIDS agency are hailing reports of a breakthrough in the fight against the AIDS epidemic, saying a vaginal gel to reduce infection risks for women would be groundbreaking.

While attending the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, UNAIDS director Michel Sidibe said the results are "giving hope to women."  The gel, he said, will be the first option for women to initiate and control their risk of infection. 

WHO director Margaret Chan said her organization will work quickly to make the products available as soon as further clinical trials show them safe and effective.  However, some experts caution that further scrutiny is needed to test the microbicide's safety and effectiveness before it can be released to the public.

South African researchers report women who used the gel, which contains the drug tenofovir, had a 50-percent lower infection rate after one year compared to women who were given a placebo gel.  The infection rate was 39 percent lower after two-and-a-half years.

In a joint statement, WHO and UNAIDS said they will gather experts next month to discuss the next steps for the research.  The meeting will include advocates in women's health, HIV prevention, microbicide research and public health.

The organizations said in addition to confirming the scientific results, much work needs to be completed to determine how to regulate the drug, and how to ensure it is widely available for prevention campaigns.

They said further research is also necessary to determine the safety of the gel for women under 18 years of age or who are pregnant.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.