UCT ranked First in the World for HIV/AIDS Research

28 Nov 2019 - 10:15

Since the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, South African scholars have worked relentlessly to investigate and understand the epidemic, and to ameliorate its catastrophic effects. At UCT, researchers within the Health Sciences modelled the clinical and epidemiological impacts of the epidemic, while economists focused on its fiscal implications. Within the Humanities and the Social Sciences, researchers explored the social meanings of the epidemic; its medical history; and its consequences for South Africa’s democratic polity. 

During the late 1990s, as AIDS mortality rates crested, UCT academics – including Professor Nicoli Nattrass – partnered with South Africa’s foremost HIV activist group, the Treatment Action Campaign, to fight for public access to antiretroviral treatment (ART). TAC, supported by civil society groups such as the HIV Clinicians Society, drew especially on evidence-based academic research to prove that ART was both clinically effective and cost-effective. In an affidavit submitted to the court in support of public access to ART, Nattrass (the founder of UCT’s AIDS and Society Research Unit) argued that the public provision of ART was affordable, a critical intervention in disproving claims that the state could not afford to roll-out ART. In subsequent years, UCT researchers have continued to work closely on the HIV epidemic, and have contributed to the vast literature that documents the HIV epidemic in South Africa and globally.

Last week, A report by Elsevier assessing HIV/AIDS research in terms of impacts, trends, opportunities identified the University of Cape Town as among the World’s Top Ten Institutions for HIV/AIDS Research. In terms of field-weighted citation impact (the production of highly influential research in the field with an FWCI of 3.8 and 1,873 publications between 2014 and 2018), UCT is ranked first among the top ten institutions for HIV/AIDS research.

This achievement is the result of decades of impassioned work by UCT academics across all University Faculties. Within the Humanities faculty, and within the Centre for Social Science Research, the AIDS and Society Research Unit (ASRU) has, since its establishment by Professor Nicoli Nattrass in 1999, focused the production of interdisciplinary research on the socio-political and economic challenges of the HIV epidemic in South Africa. Established to provide an academic counterfoil to AIDS denialism, in its early years ASRU produced a powerful body of scholarship that illustrated both the socio-economic and human rights imperatives of public access to antiretroviral treatment.

In more recent years, as South Africa’s national ART programme has grown into the largest in the world, and indeed into one of the largest public health interventions in history, ASRU has focused more intently on the issues of ART adherence, rather than access. With Dr. Rebecca Hodes as Director, ASRU has, since 2012, hosted the Mzantsi Wakho study at the University of Cape Town (with key collaborators at Oxford University, the South African Department of Health, the Human Sciences Research Council, UNICEF, UNFPA and Paediatric-Adolescent Treatment Africa, among many other partners). 

Mzantsi Wakho is the largest known, longitudinal, mixed methods, community-traced study on the medicines-taking and sexual health practices of HIV-positive teenagers. Following the success of the study, new research questions regarding the sexual and reproductive health practices of adolescent parents emerged, and a study called HEY BABY (Helping Empower Youth Brought up in Adversity with their Babies and Young children) was launched in 2018 to focus on the health and social needs of adolescent parents and their babies.

The Mzantsi Wakho and HEY BABY research studies have, to date, resulted in over sixty peer-reviewed publications across a broad span of high-impact and transdisciplinary fora. We have worked closely with partners in government, resulting in our lead co-authorship, in 2017, of South Africa’s National Adolescent and Youth Health Policy.

Currently, ASRU researchers are pursuing research on a range of topics, including masculinities and ART adherence among young men undergoing ulwaluko (traditional circumcision); the epidemiological connections and statistical correlations between HIV and TB; risk and resilience factors relating to ART adherence and the impact of social protection provisions; and the history and epistemology of HIV, sexual health and the social sciences in South Africa. ASRU researchers Lesley Gittings, Mumta Hargovan and Rebecca Hodes are currently working on the development of a pictogram to support ART initiation and adherence for healthcare workers and adolescents, in collaboration with pharmacologist Briony Chisholm (Division of Pharmacology, Faculty of Health Sciences, UCT), and Professor Ros Dowse (Department of Pharmacology, Rhodes University).

More information is available at http://www.mzantsiwakho.org/, or from rebecca.hodes@uct.ac.za