Rakai is famous. Rakai doesn't want to be famous. Rakai is a small district (in the red on the map) in south-central Uganda.
Rakai's home to Uganda's first known AIDS case, many years ago. Rakai is now also the home of a vast amount of research in many of the poster exhibitions at the 4th International Aids Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention in Sydney.
Walk through the poster exhibitions (often interesting research which isn't ready yet for panel debate or sometimes a way for young researchers to gain experience) on the ground floor of the Sydney conference centre.
Rakai crops up in about 10 different research posters. It's probably the only town in the developing world to have so much data about HIV research to its name.
Many of the research findings will be relevant to the greater part of the developing world. Rakai's rural residents have helped show that putting HIV+ people on anti-retroviral drugs when their immune system begins to collapse does not increase risky sexual behaviours. This dispels the often-stated fear that ARV users infect others. ARVs don't just help the person with HIV. The ARV drugs help every one of his or her sexual partners. And their kids, parents, employers and friends.
One of the posters says that in a rural setting like Rakai, people under HIV drug treatment increase their use of condoms. They also stopped or reduced taking alcohol before having sex and most of them disclosed their sero-status to their partners. This is incredibly good news.
Dr. Gertrude Nakigozi an implementing officer with the USA President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), said the study was important in determining whether being on ART increases high risk sexual behaviours amonh HIV positive patients.
A similar study in the US found worrying evidence of behavioral disinhibition among men who have sex with men and those who inject drugs like heroin intravenously.
Fredrick Makumbi, a biostatistician with the Rakai Health Sciences Program, said the reduction in risky sexual behaviors may be attributed to the frequent health education.
“These people often get counseling every month they come to pick drugs and we think that is influencing their behavior,” said Makumbi.
Other studies on Rakai include pediatrics HIV, discordant couples and infections, adherence to HIV and Prevention of Mother to Child transmission of HIV.
Blog contributed by Esther Nakkazi, a correspondent with the East African newspaper and a member of the World Federation of Science Journalists.