HIV stats down, now if only we could get kids to wear condoms ...
While most of the results of the latest survey on the epidemic are heartening, there are still some reasons for concern
The number of annual new HIV infections is way down from an estimated 469,000 a year in 2012 to about 217,000 in 2017.
This is according to the Human Sciences Research Council’s fifth South African National HIV Prevalence Incidence, Behaviour and Communication Survey 2017.
Leading HIV scientist Professor Helen Rees, head of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, called the decrease in new infections “extraordinary”.
The survey researchers have interviewed about 33,000 people five times since 2002 and taken blood from participants who allow it.
Last year they took blood from 24,000 people to measure if they had HIV, to see if they were on treatment and if it was working.The data released on Tuesday showed that 60% of HIV-positive people in South Africa are on antiretroviral treatment and almost 88% are taking it so well they are not infectious.
But the study which had researchers asking people about their sex lives shows that even though the number of new infections has dropped, South Africans have not reduced their risky behaviour.
The number of people having sex before they turn 15 is increasing, as is the number of South Africans with multiple partners.Lead HSRC researcher Professor Khangelani Zuma said the decrease in new infections was due to two factors.
Firstly, two thirds of people with HIV are taking treatment and are virally suppressed, meaning they are not infectious.
Taking treatment daily until the virus stops replicating makes a person almost unable to transmit the virus.
Secondly, one in three South African men are now medically circumcised and have a 60% less chance of contracting the virus.
This is way up from 18.6% of men being circumcised in 2012.
“But the number of new infections is dropping too slowly, and if there was behaviour change they would drop further,” said Zuma.
He said the groups they studied that had very low levels of HIV had fewer sexual partners and more consistent condom use.He noted that the study showed condom use between sexual partners had decreased. Use was higher in 2008 than 2012 and is now at its lowest in 10 years.
The exact numbers of how often people use condoms would be released in the full study report next week at a global Aids conference in Amsterdam, he explained.
Zuma said the bad news from the study was that men continue to be reluctant to test for HIV or take ARVs.
“Men are more likely to transmit the virus as they won’t be on treatment and are not virally supressed.”
He said the rate of HIV infection among young men aged 15 to 24 was increasing for the first time.
Zuma called for a focus on young men and HIV risk.
Only 50% of men aged 14 to 24 who have HIV are on treatment, lower than 60% overall.