SA losing the war on HIV infection

02 April 2014 - 02:00 By Katharine Child
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Unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners and ignorance have contributed to about 500000 HIV infections in South Africa in one year.

Statistics released yesterday showed that the number of HIV infections was not falling, despite years of Aids awareness programmes and the national distribution of free condoms, and hundreds of thousands of people dying from the disease in the past.

Releasing its National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey for 2012 yesterday, the Human Sciences Research Council sketched a picture of more men having multiple partners (19.3% in 2008; 23% in 2012), and condom use being lowest among black females aged 24 to 34.

The research showed that 469000 people became HIV-positive in 2012, almost the same number as in 2005, according to the council's CEO, Dr Olive Shisana.

"We have underestimated our new HIV infections," said SA Aids Council CEO Dr Fareed Abdullah. "It is a big problem. A staggering quarter of all new cases are people between 15 and 24."

The survey showed that 6.4million people were living with HIV - 12.2% of the population.

The percentage had increased from 10% in 2008 because more people were on antiretrovirals and so were surviving, said Shisana.

Among all groups surveyed, disabled people were the least likely to use condoms and 57% of them had never used a condom.

Some of the key statistics that emerged from the research:

  • About 36% of women aged 30 to 34 are HIV-positive;
  • About 6.2million of the 6.4million people with HIV are black;
  • Black females have a 4.5% higher chance of getting HIV than men;
  • Only 27% of South Africans had correct knowledge about HIV;
  • People in informal settlements have double the chance of contracting HIV compared to those living in suburbs;
  • KwaZulu-Natal had the highest rate of people with HIV, with 28% of adults infected;
  • HIV prevalence is highest among black females aged between 20 and 34; and
  • About 63% of HIV-positive men do not know their status.

The deputy director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, Francois Venter, said the research had produced "fascinating data".

"What leaps out for me is the low HIV-status knowledge rates among men, and the low perception of risk by large proportions of the population."

Venter said it was "reassuring" to see that tests for the presence of antiretroviral medications in participants' blood showed that the Department of Health's assertion that more than 2million South Africans were being treated with ARVs was correct.

The survey had almost 30000 adult respondents in 1000 census areas across South Africa, of which 70% had their blood tested for HIV and use of antiretrovirals use.

Most white respondents refused to be tested for HIV - and many would not let the researchers into their homes.

One of the positive findings was that the rate of infection among teenagers was decreasing - even though more boys under 15 are having sex.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said young people were more open than adults to changing risky sexual behaviour.

Science Minister Derek Hanekom said the research data were "sobering in many respects".

"This research is being taken seriously to help create policy to reduce the rate of HIV infection," he said.

Motsoaledi said life expectancy had increased because of the extension of treatment with ARVs to 30% of this country's HIV-positive people.

The director-general of the Department of Health, Yogan Pillay, questioned the accuracy of the figures for the high rate of infections each year. He called on scientists and researchers to discuss the data for two days next week.

Pillay said the new incidence rates might be too high and figures from the U N showed that the infection rate was dropping.

"It is the first time the lab test that measured whether the virus in the blood was new or old has been used on a national level," he said.

The test used to test the age of the virus in the blood was accredited by the US Centres for Disease Control.

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