AMERICA IS IN THE MIDST OF an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and other bugs strike some 10 to 12 million people each year. One in five adults now has herpes, for instance. And a new study in the Sept. 10 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine shows that fully 9.2% of 13,204 female U.S. Army recruits tested were infected with chlamydia, a disease that can lead to infertility.

The frontline defense against STDs is the condom. But studies show that condoms are only about two-thirds successful in preventing disease transmission--and rates of use in the general population never exceed 50%. As an alternative, a number of companies are developing antimicrobial salves that women can smear in the vagina before sex that would kill any bacteria or viruses that their partners may harbor.

Furthest along, microbe experts say, is Empyrean Bioscience Inc. in Phoenix. The company is testing a gel containing two substances, otoxynol-9 and benzylkonium chloride, which can block everything from HIV and herpes to chlamydia and syphilis by disrupting cell membranes. It acts like a soap, attacking the organisms without affecting human cells. So far, studies in women show that the product can be used with little irritation.

Full-scale National Institutes of Health-run phase-III clinical trials are scheduled to begin this fall. They will involve Duke University students and other women from both North Carolina and South Carolina.

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