Hormonal Contraceptives Under the Microscope
Over the last 20 years several clinical studies have provided data associating the use of hormonal contraceptives (HCs), particularly depot medroxyprogesterone acetate (DMPA/Depo) with a heightened HIV risk among women.
In an effort to better understand the mucosal and systemic impact of HCs on the female body, UKZN lecturer Dr Refilwe Molatlhegi investigated the effect of DMPA (Depo) and NET-EN (Norethisterone enanthate) on the systemic and mucosal milieu of African women at high risk of HIV infection.
The study earned Molatlhegi a PhD from UKZN’s School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences.
Her research findings showed that both DMPA and NET-EN are not broadly inflammatory but they are associated with reduced growth factors, including those important for mucosal epithelial repair. Reduction of these growth factors could be detrimental in women who suffer abrasions during sex or other forms of mucosal injury, therefore the continued search for safer contraceptives is essential for the benefit of women of reproductive age.
As a youngster Molatlhegi was interested in HIV, STI and cancer research as they were the main medical health issues that made the headlines on TV and radio. She knew that doing a PhD would allow her to join forces with other researchers working to reduce the burden of HIV and STIs, particularly in women living in high-risk areas.
It was not all plain sailing for her - three months into her PhD her supervisor left for Canada and she had limited access to him. However, she says that taught her to be independent and think on her own while her supervisor created time for virtual meetings and face-to-face meetings whenever he could.
She says she was fortunate to have Dr Sinaye Ngcapu and Dr Aida Sivro as her co-supervisors.
She also had to juggle her full-time work and studies. However, her job provided her with financial security.
‘I am grateful for the strong support structure provided by my family and friends, and for my supervisors as well as for the supportive environment the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) mucosal group and lab staff provided me with during my studies.’
Molatlhegi (31) says her experience at UKZN led to her becoming a strong and competitive academic and researcher in her field. ‘The countless research, data analysis, teaching, manuscript writing, supervision and teaching workshops helped me with skills to secure my place here at UKZN as a student and for life after university.
Molatlhegi is a developmental lecturer in Medical Microbiology.
Words: Lihle Sosibo
Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu