An alarming number of Gauteng teenagers are having unprotected sex, resulting in thousands of unplanned pregnancies.
New statistics obtained by The Times show that almost 5000 schoolgirls in the province became pregnant in only one year.
Apart from the high pregnancy rate recorded by the provincial department of health for 2009-2010, a shocking feature of the statistics is that more than 113 primary school girls became pregnant in the same period.
This revelation comes against a backdrop of increasing concern about HIV infection among teenagers.
Speaking at the launch of an HIV-testing drive at schools and universities - which will begin at schools later this year - Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi last week said teenage pregnancy statistics were of greater concern than those for HIV.
"What this proves is that our children are having unprotected sex, which makes them more vulnerable," he said.
"Young girls are having sex with older men ... old men are targeting young women, whom we must protect," Motsoaledi said.
The recent figures have sent shock waves through the provincial health department. Health MEC Ntombi Mekgwe this weekend launched a teenage pregnancy awareness campaign.
It has also prompted Gauteng doctor, Kalli Spencer, to visit schools to talk about underage pregnancy and HIV.
"I will talk about the risks of [teenage] pregnancy and having an abortion," said Spencer.
He was prompted to act when he saw that teenagers made up a quarter of the pregnant women he treated.
Mekgwe could not attend the launch but, in a speech read to about 800 children from 12 schools in Tembisa, on the East Rand, she said: "This year we have decided to tackle head-on the problem of teenage pregnancy in our province. It is not a coincidence that we have decided to launch this campaign in Tembisa.
"Young girls do not make themselves pregnant."
Tembisa, she said, has "the highest rate of teenage pregnancies when compared to other areas".
At Tembisa Hospital and Esangweni clinic, 1756 girls under 18 gave birth between April and December last year.
Another 203 girls had abortions at the two healthcare centres in the same period.
Said Mekgwe: "Future generations will curse us and spit on our graves if we do not address this problem head-on."
Statistics compiled by Mekgwe's department show that 4816 Gauteng schoolgirls from 545 schools were pregnant in the 2009-2010 financial year.
Mekgwe said she was also concerned about the effects of early childbirth on the teenagers' bodies.
"Bodies of young girls are not only unprepared for pregnancy and child birth, they are also not prepared for sexual intercourse.
"The most imminent risk is that of HIV infection - much has been said about it and nobody can claim to be ignorant of it," Mekgwe said.
Two schools - in the southeast and Tswane North districts - had the highest number of pregnancies in the province in this period - 56.
The provincial breakdown includes:
- 397 pregnant pupils at 42 schools in Ekurhuleni North;
- 530 pupils at 56 schools in Ekurhuleni South;
- 483 at 53 schools in Gauteng East;
- 111 pupils at 18 schools in Gauteng North;
- 433 pupils at 51 schools in Gauteng West;
- 444 pupils at 45 schools in Johannesburg Central;
- 239 pupils at 32 schools in Johannesburg East;
- 191 pupils at 35 schools in Johannesburg North;
- 289 pupils at 33 schools in Johannesburg South; and
- 249 pupils at 34 schools in Johannesburg West.
Gauteng Social Development official Shoki Tshabala said: "We do see the rate of teenage pregnancy on the increase. We wouldn't be intervening if it weren't for that.
"Young girls should not resort to seeking sugar daddies while at school," she said.
A Sowetan teenager who has seen many of her friends become young mothers said: "It's fashionable to have a baby. You are like an idiot if you don't have sex.
"I'm still a virgin. Girls get involved in sex because they're talking about it at school.
"Sex is cool. If you are not having sex, it's like you are stupid."
Mekgwe warned that the launch was not a one-off initiative. She said her department had trained 30 nurses to assist district nurses, who must visit schools once a term.
Peer pressure, dysfunctional family units, and alcohol and drug abuse were some of the main contributing factors to the unprecedented increase in teen pregnancies, said Mekgwe.
The Gauteng director of the multi-sectoral Aids unit, Dr Liz Floyd, said that condoms were not distributed at schools but could be if school governing bodies agreed.
Floyd said that 4% of Gauteng teenagers were HIV-positive by her estimate.
However, "[the rate] is even higher in areas where the teenagers are more sexually active."