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South African Health Technologies Advocacy Coalition

Critical role of clinical research

Across the globe, research helps find the root cause of the health challenges or diseases in our society, identify ways to improve behaviours of the affected community, and find solutions to our health issues. Clinical research has critical in bringing new vaccines to our health system.

Clinical research – aimed at evaluating a medical, surgical, or behavioural intervention – conducted by scientists in our communities helps resolve complex challenges in our societies. It is the primary way for researchers to establish whether or not a new treatment is safe and effective.

Research has a much more significant impact when researchers and communities partner to ensure that research benefits society in terms of which interventions are most needed to improve the lives of South Africans.

We need research that treats community participants respectfully, where confidentiality is maintained, informed consent is thoroughly conducted, and their participation is acknowledged during the clinical trial.

COVID-19 illustrated the critical nature of research

COVID-19 has shown us the critical nature of research as information gathered enabled evidence-based interventions. Over 35 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the country, and over 11 billion COVID-19 vaccines are administered worldwide.

The Sisonke Vaccine study provided evidence that vaccinated people are less likely to die or get severely ill. As a result, there is minimal hospitalization due to COVID-related illnesses among vaccinated cohorts.

Researchers like Professor Glenda Gray and Professor Ameena Goga, who led the Sisonke research, reported that they saw positive outcomes regarding vaccine side effects, hospitalization, and death rates in 2021.

Another example of the impact of research is the use of the Dapivirine vaginal ring, which the SAHPRA approved in March 2022. Researchers engaged participants to participate by using the ring, which tested whether it could prevent HIV infection among women 18 years and older.

The ring is a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor that blocks HIV’s ability to multiply inside the body. Participants are always counselled on HIV prevention measures like using condoms during sexual intercourse regardless of the inserted ring. The results of the research led to its final approval.

How research confirmed ‘ breast is best’

Research at Mtubatuba focused on pregnant women who were encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their babies immediately after delivery until their babies turned six months.

Women were recruited into the study during pregnancy and counselled on infant feeding options regardless of their HIV status. Breastfeeding counsellors would keep close contact towards delivery so they couldn’t mix feed. Nurses and study clinicians also worked closely with these women during pregnancy until the babies turned two years.

HIV-positive women were given Nevirapine which they swallowed immediately as they went into labour. This prevented HIV infection from mother to child transmission. This study found that HIV infection was minimal if babies were breastfed exclusively, and the administering of the Nevirapine lowered the risk of mother-to-child transmission.

Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that breastmilk is the best.

Research does not take place in a vacuum

Some may argue that researchers use people to profit from the outcome. Some even argue research can be harmful to the lives of people. Research does not, however, take place in a vacuum. The study follows clear protocols with ethical guidelines. The health authorities play a crucial role in ensuring that research is appropriately conducted and has long-term benefits to the communities it serves.

Yes, research requires funding, but the aim of the study is not simply to raise funds. Funding is needed to pay staff, secure resources such as vehicles, property, and administration, and ultimately produce the knowledge that can assist with better health outcomes.

Communities where the research takes place play a critical role in ensuring this can happen by participating in clinical trials. Increased participation in particular clinical research gives researchers accurate data that can be used to answer research questions and help plan the best interventions and treatments for communities.

Let us all join hands in supporting all types of research happening in our communities to improve our health knowledge, access new prevention technologies, advocate for access and use, and ultimately help develop better treatment or drugs.- Health-e News

Written by Ncengani Mthethwa 

**Ncengani Mthethwa is the Community Manager for the South African Medical Research Council. Follow her on Twitter @ncenganim

The op-ed first appeared on Health-E News.

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