The Yale Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS brought together distinguished researchers and community activists on Thursday to explore the relationship between women and HIV, examining the epidemic from a gender-based perspective.

The daylong conference at New Haven’s Omni Hotel featured five panel discussions on issues ranging from “Social Upheaval, Gender and HIV Risk” to “Sex, Crack and Women.”

CIRA director Michael Merson said it is important to discuss the female-specific issues of infection, especially because the incidence rate among women is increasing.

“Worldwide, women are a growing share of those infected with HIV, accounting for almost half (46 percent) of all adults living with HIV, and for more than half (57 percent) in sub-Saharan Africa,” Moran said in an e-mail.

As part of the segment on HIV and crack cocaine, panelist Susan Sherman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, discussed a pilot study that examined the efficacy of HIV prevention among female commercial sex workers who also used illicit drugs. She said the study showed that economically empowering sex workers by making them less dependent on male clients for financial support could effectively reduce their risk of HIV infection.

Cutting-edge research to develop microbicides — substances that could theoretically reduce the risk of HIV contraction when applied prior to sex — was presented by Lori Heise, the director of Global Campaign for Microbicides. The substances, Heise said, could be an attractive addition for women to current protection methods.

“This is a product we’re trying to develop to give women an option so they don’t have to rely on negotiating condom use,” Heise said.

Heise said many women, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, contract HIV while in committed relationships, rather than from engaging in casual or profitable sex.

Since long-term relationships, including marriages, are often the hardest in which to enforce consistent condom use, microbicides may be more practical in these situations. But the first generation of microbicides is projected to be only 40 to 60 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission and do not protect against other sexually transmitted infections, compared with a 94 percent success rate for condoms. These projections have spurred debate among researchers because some fear people will use microbicides and similar products as substitutes for more reliable barrier methods, potentially increasing the infection rate, Heise said.

Ethical concerns associated with conducting microbicide clinical trials were also addressed in the conference. Laurie Sylla, the research projects director for the Yale AIDS Program, cautioned that any human research must be conducted with an eye to privacy and must not cause undue harm.

A handful of community booths at Thursday’s events offered social commentary from a nonacademic perspective. Lorrie Wesoly, a case manager for Leeway — a nonprofit 40-bed New Haven hospice for people living with AIDS — was present to increase awareness of her organization.