By Kim Cloete
Residents from nine communities in and around Cape Town and the Winelands district of South Africa recently gathered to hear about the primary outcome results of the HPTN 071 (PopART) study. Similar events were held in the 12 Zambian study communities as well. HPTN 071 (PopART) is the largest study in HIV prevention to date and was carried out in South Africa and Zambia.
Community members and local leaders, fieldworkers and clinic staff from the nine South African study sites met at town halls and venues in the communities to attend the dissemination meetings.
“We would not have been able to undertake this pivotal HIV prevention trial without the support of people in the communities in which we worked,” said Dr. Peter Bock, research clinician at the Desmond Tutu TB Centre (DTTC) at Stellenbosch University and HPTN 071 (PopART) Co-Principal Investigator for South Africa. “We wanted to thank them for it and reflect on how their participation has made a difference.”
Over a period of four years, Community HIV Care Providers (CHiPS) went door to door in 21 communities in South Africa and Zambia, offering a package of HIV prevention services. They provided HIV testing and counseling, condoms, and screening and education on sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis. They also linked HIV positive clients to care and antiretroviral treatment (ART) at clinics.
The trial found that in-home testing, combined with referring people living with HIV to care and treatment at clinics, could substantially reduce new HIV infections.
Community members and local leaders welcomed the results and said they had been proud to play their part in raising awareness about HIV prevention and helping to bring down the high HIV infection rate through increased HIV testing and treatment.
“Whatever can be done to prevent illness will not only save many lives but will also be cost-effective in the long run,” said Aidan Stowman, speaker for the Drakenstein municipality in Paarl, Western Cape, at one of the community dissemination events.
He also welcomed the way the results had been shared with the community.
“We thank you for keeping your promise to report on the results.”
Members of Community Advisory Boards set up for the study played a key role. The members volunteered their services for free and were a critical link between the researchers, community members and the clinics. They offered advice, encouraged people to test and get treated for HIV and helped to resolve any challenges within the community.
Community members also relayed their experiences during the trial, saying the message about preventing HIV through testing and going on treatment had been spread far and wide by the CHiPS, who tested people once a year for four years. Several study participants said going onto antiretroviral treatment had been a lifeline.
At each of the events, there was either a performance by a talented marimba band or an uplifting, meaningful and sometimes humorous performance from a local arts, drama or performance group, carrying a message about HIV prevention. People in each site shared their experiences during the study while questions from community members were welcomed.
“It is so important to tell people in communities about the results of the study,” said Nomtha Mandla, Population Cohort project manager for HPTN 071 (PopART) in South Africa. “They have invested their time and interest in the study over the past few years and deserve to know the outcome.”
A separate event was held to present the primary outcome results to other partners and stakeholders who have been pivotal to the running and success of the study. Representatives from the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, the City of Cape Town Health Department, the Western Cape Department of Health, NGO implementing partners - Kheth’Impilo and Anova - and Stellenbosch University leadership, attended the meeting.
“Partnerships were at the heart of the HPTN 071 (PopART) study,” said Dr. Nulda Beyers, principal investigator of the HPTN 071 (PopART) study in South Africa. “We are very grateful to everyone who worked together over the years towards the greater goal of helping to bring down the rate of HIV in our communities and further afield.”
The DTTC hopes the lessons learned from the trial will help to improve the delivery of health services. The DTTC worked closely with the Western Cape Department of Health and the City of Cape Town Health Department and believes that through close collaboration of academics and health service providers, the delivery of health to communities can be improved.
HPTN 071 is sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) under Cooperative Agreements UM1-AI068619, UM1-AI068617, and UM1-AI068613, with funding from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Additional funding is provided by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as by NIAID, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), all part of NIH.
Kim Cloete is a freelance journalist and media specialist supporting HPTN 071 (PopART) on behalf of the Desmond Tutu TB Centre at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa.