Efforts to cut the risk of women contracting HIV could have an interesting side effect - sexual pleasure.
This emerged at the official launch in Pretoria of a 24-month trial of a microbicide gel researchers were hoping would help prevent HIV transmission.
Wits professor Helen Rees (CORR), of the university's reproductive health and HIV institute, said the R300 million trial would involve about 2200 sexually active women at seven locations countrywide.
The Tenofovir gel study
The Tenofovir gel study - known as Follow-on African Consortium for Tenofovir Studies (Facts) study - would be a follow-up to the Caprisa 004 study, which showed that a highly consistent use of the microbicide by women resulted in a 59% reduction in the risk of HIV infection.
Rees said during a previous study involving another gel - that proved unsuccessful in the fight against HIV - participants had noted the gel improved their sexual pleasure.
"One of the big messages we got, was many women said 'We liked this'."
Most of the feedback during that study had come from women in their menopause. If the gel proved successful, the sexual pleasure factor could be a potential marketing option, she said.
But while sexual pleasure might be a positive spin-off, the primary focus of the Facts study would be seeing if it backed up the Caprisa 004 study, which involved a smaller sample of women at only two locations in KwaZulu-Natal.
The Caprisa (Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa) study began in May 2007, was completed in December 2009, and the data published in March 2010.
The Facts study would see the participants, aged between 18 and 30, using the gel 12 hours before intercourse and within 12 hours after intercourse.
The results of the study were expected to be released by the end of 2013. It was being funded by the science and technology department, the US government and various other organisations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
US ambassador to South Africa Donald Gips announced his country's government would contribute R129 million over the next three years toward the study. Science and Technology Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom said his department would contribute R70 million. These were the two largest funders, but several other organisations were also backing the project.
SA, highest infection rate
Hanekom said because South Africa had the highest infection rate, it needed to be at the forefront of research to prevent the spread of the disease.
"We have passed the stage of denial."
He said providing the gel to women did not imply they were promiscuous, but might have partners who were.
Rees said pregnant women would not be participating in the trial. This was however an area that needed research because they were at an increased risk of contracting the disease.
"Most pregnant women do not think of using a condom," she said.
The women involved in the study would be counselled and not be encouraged to be promiscuous.
The upcoming trial would also be used to see if Tenofovir provided protection against the herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). During the Caprisa study researchers noted a decrease in HSV-2 transmission. (Sapa, May 2011)