South Africa is leading the world’s response to the HIV epidemic with major research in the prevention, treatment and care of people living with HIV/AIDS, TB and AIDS-related cancers, particularly cervical cancer. According to Head of the Clinical HIV Research Unit (CHRU), a division of the Wits Health Consortium at the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Ian Sanne, this is leading to breakthroughs, new treatments and significantly reducing death and disease.

“During Women’s Month this year, it is important to note the work that is being done to prevent and cure cervical cancer, which is the second most common cause of cancer among women worldwide and a leading cause of cancer death in South African women. There is a need for clinical trials to find solutions for women,” said Prof Sanne.

CHRU conducts clinical trials in this area focusing on the patterns of the human papillomavirus (HPV), cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer including early diagnosis and treatment options.

“Our studies deal with the major cancers that affect HIV-positive patients and the HPV-related cancers that include cervical cancer are a major priority. We want to prevent cervical cancer by improving cervical cancer screening, investigating new treatments for cervical pre-cancer and finding the best way to treat cervical cancer in high-risk women,” said investigator at CHRU, Dr Masangu Mulongo.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and the most common cause of 70% of cervical cancers. HIV positive women are three to five times more likely to develop cervical cancer and its progression is far more rapid in HIV positive patients. Regular pap smear tests can detect the condition while it is still pre-cancerous.

Initially there may be no symptoms of cervical cancer, but women can experience symptoms like pain in the pelvis, pain during sexual intercourse, abnormal menstruation, heavy menstruation, irregular menstruation, or spotting, abnormal vaginal bleeding or abnormal vaginal discharge. Fatigue, nausea or weight loss can also occur.

“CHRU ensures the participation of diverse patients. We have an active community advisory board which promotes community engagement, participant recruitment and educates community members about health and clinical trials. Board members advocate for patients, give feedback on cultural and religious sensitivities and raise community concerns as well as educating communities about CHRU’s clinical trials,” said Dr Mulongo.

Dr Mulongo concluded by saying that South Africa’s clinical trials adhere to international best practice. “For every trial conducted by CHRU, the research is reviewed by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, while the National Department of Health (NDoH) is also involved. Only competent teams can conduct clinical trials and informed consent for patients is necessary.  Safety and quality of research is very important.”

For more information about clinical trials focused on preventing and treating cervical cancer, you can contact the CHRU’s Community Advisory Board by emailing either Matsepo Maloma or Nombuyiselo Tshandu.

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