The Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) began with a simple question, “Is it possible for women in Soweto to safely formula-feed their babies?” It was a question raised amidst controversy by a young medical school graduate, Dr. Glenda Gray. At the time, guidelines had been issued that HIV-positive women living in resource-rich areas should formula-feed their babies and those living in resource-poor settings should breastfeed. However, breastfeeding poses an additional risk to infants of acquiring HIV and Dr. Gray thought women should be free to make their own choice.

Gaining recognition for their initial breastfeeding study, Dr. Gray and her colleagues were awarded a grant to conduct the PETRA study—a multi-site, UNAIDS-funded study on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV. And so in 1996, with an initial staff of 10 and funding for one study, PHRU was born.

From those early days, PHRU has built on each subsequent success, expanding our scope beyond research into PMTCT to include adult, paediatric and adolescent HIV treatment research, HIV prevention research, psychosocial research, HIV care and prevention services, and policy development.

Since 1996, we have conducted countless clinical trials investigating adult and paediatric HIV treatments, co-infections such as tuberculosis (TB), and novel HIV prevention methods. PHRU was one of the first sites in South Africa to roll-out antiretrovirals (ARVs) and scale-up treatment for HIV. The unit enrolled the first South African HIV vaccine study participant and was one of the first research units to move to—and advocate for—rapid, on-site testing for HIV. In addition to the numerous pharmaceutical and publicly-funded clinical trials PHRU continues to carry out, it also conducts behavioural and social science research, advocates for research access and provides needed care to the people of Soweto.  

Now a world-renowned research facility, PHRU remains grounded in Soweto and our initial purpose—to reduce the impact of the HIV epidemic on South Africans, in collaboration with the community.