Speaking at a press briefing yesterday, Priti Dusara, the coordinator of the study which will be called 'Thibelo study', said that anti-retroviral drugs have been shown to reduce the morbidity and mortality of HIV infections through sustained reduction in HIV replication consequent upon HIV viral suppression. She said the drugs decrease the HIV viral load in the blood as well as the concentration of HIV in male and female genital secretions thereby reducing the levels of HIV in the genital secretion to which the susceptible partner is exposed.
Dusara further stated that other retrospective clinical studies have shown significant reduction in HIV transmission where ART was used. "This was corroborated by mathematical models which have concluded that ART could decrease HIV transmission," she said.
The project coordinator said that the Thibelo study was undertaken as part of a multi-site effort to enrol 1,750 sero-discordant couples under the auspices of the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HTPN) in nine countries.
Durasa said that HIV infected individuals with CD4 cell counts of 350-550 who have not taken ART, and their HIV uninfected partners, will be enrolled.
"However mothers who once enrolled for Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) and meet the enrolment criteria will be considered," she said. She pointed out that discordant couples are among the largest risk groups for HIV infection in Africa where the main route of HIV transmission is heterosexual intercourse. Durasa asserted that the incidence of HIV amongst the 20-50 year group averages 5.5 percent while overall incidence in all age groups is 2.89 percent.
She stated that incidence amongst those who are married and those who are living together as a group is at 8.4 percent, the highest compared to those who are not married, separated, divorced or widowed as according to the Botswana HIV/AIDS Impact Survey III.
Thibelo Study aims at enrolling 120 couples of the 1,750 couples that are to be enrolled overall within the HTPN from nine countries. According to BHP, couples that join the Thibelo Study would be expected to be in the study for the entire 60 months of the study.
"BHP considers Thibelo Study an important study as incidences amongst couples remain very high," she said. Durasa pointed out they will encourage couples to come together for counselling and testing. She explained that this is premised on findings that it is easier for couples to learn of their status together.
"Furthermore, many couples who are in stable relationships remain most vulnerable, and presenting together as a couple for HIV counselling and testing will offer couples the skills to prevent infection of the uninfected partner," she said.
Partners wishing to enrol in the study have been requested to visit the BHP offices near Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone. The Division of AIDS, National Institute of Health in the Unites States of America, sponsors the study.