<p>Abstract</p> <p>Background</p> <p>South Africa, with its scientific capacity, good infrastructure and high HIV incidence rates, is ideally positioned to conduct large-scale HIV prevention trials. The HIV Prevention Research Unit of the South African Medical Research Council conducted four phase III and one phase IIb trials of women-initiated HIV prevention options in KwaZulu-Natal between 2003 and 2009. A total of 7046 women participated, with HIV prevalence between 25% and 45% and HIV incidence ranging from 4.5-9.1% per year. Unfortunately none of the interventions tested had any impact on reducing the risk of HIV acquisition; however, extremely valuable experience was gained, lessons learned and capacity built, while the communities gained associated benefits.</p> <p>Experience</p> <p>Our experience in conducting these trials ranged from setting up community partnerships to developing clinical research sites and dissemination of trial results. Community engagement included setting up community-based research sites with approval from both political and traditional leaders, and developing community advisory groups to assist with the research process. Community-wide education on HIV/sexually transmitted infection prevention, treatment and care was provided to over 90 000 individuals. Myths and misconceptions were addressed through methods such as anonymous suggestion boxes in clinic waiting areas and intensive education and counselling. Attempts were made to involve male partners to foster support and facilitate recruitment of women. Peer educator programmes were initiated to provide ongoing education and also to facilitate recruitment of women to the trials. Recruitment strategies such as door-to-door recruitment and community group meetings were initiated. Over 90% of women enrolled were retained.</p> <p>Community benefits from the trial included education on HIV prevention, treatment and care and provision of ancillary care (such as Pap smears, reproductive health care and referral for chronic illnesses). Social benefits included training of home-based caregivers and sustainable ongoing HIV prevention education through peer educator programmes.</p> <p>Challenges</p> <p>Several challenges were encountered, including manipulation by participants of their eligibility criteria in order to enroll in the trial. Women attempted to co-enroll in multiple trials to benefit from financial reimbursements and individualised care. The trials became ethically challenging when participants refused to take up referrals for care due to stigma, denial of their HIV status and inadequate health infrastructure. Lack of disclosure of HIV status to partners and family members was particularly challenging. Some of the ethical dilemmas put to the test our responsibility as researchers and our obligation to provide health care to research participants.</p> <p>Conclusion</p> <p>Conducting these five trials in a period of six years provided us with invaluable insights into trial implementation, community participation, recruitment and retention, provision of care and dissemination of trial results. The critical mass of scientists trained as clinical trialists will continue to address the relentless HIV epidemic in our setting and ensure our commitment to finding a biomedical HIV prevention option for women in the future.</p
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