HIV Prevalence Among Pregnant Women in South Africa Increasing More Slowly Than in 1990s, Survey Says
HIV prevalence among pregnant women in South Africa continues to increase but at lower levels than those experienced in the 1990s, according to data released on Wednesday from a national survey conducted by the country's Department of Health, the SAPA/SABC News reports. The data, which were collected from women attending prenatal clinics, showed that approximately 27.9% of pregnant women were HIV-positive in 2003, up from 26.5% in 2002. The report estimates that 300,000 people in South Africa have contracted HIV since 2002, resulting in a total of 5.6 million people living with HIV in the country. According to health department spokesperson Sibani Mngadi, the numbers indicate that increases in South Africa's overall HIV prevalence rate are slowing down, the SAPA/SABC News reports. However, Mngadi was "cautiously optimistic" about the results, saying that "since 1999 we have been seeing just slight increases and decreases that are of no statistical significance," according to the SAPA/SABC News. During the past five years, the country's prevalence rate has increased by an average of 1.1% each year, down from an average annual increase of 2.94% between 1994 and 1998. In addition, HIV prevalence among 25- to 29-year-olds and 30- to 35-year-olds significantly increased last year, according to the report. However, the increase among people younger than age 20 was not significant, according to Mngadi (SAPA/SABC News, 9/23).
Nathan Geffen, spokesperson for the South African AIDS advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign, said, "The results are very disturbing. They demonstrate that our prevention efforts need to be substantially improved (as) we have not got the epidemic under control." He added that the health department's statement that the annual increases in HIV prevalence were not significant was "disingenuous" because the most important point was that the data showed a constant upward trend, according to Business Day. Ryan Coetzee of the opposition party Democratic Alliance said that the data suggested that the government's HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns are not working. "(President Thabo Mbeki) withdrew from the HIV/AIDS debate, but that was the wrong thing to do. He must come out of hiding and start to lead the prevention effort," Coetzee said (Business Day, 9/23). Mngadi said that the government is planning to implement prevention and education campaigns in the most affected regions of the country due to the survey results, along with an increase in the number of syphilis cases in certain regions of South Africa, according to the SAPA/SABC News. He said that the "main concern" is empowering women in the most affected age groups to engage in safer sex, according to the SAPA/SABC News (SAPA/SABC News, 9/23).
In reaction to the survey results, South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday "praised a controversial program" of virginity testing to fight the spread of HIV, the Financial Times reports. "Girls knew that their virginity was their family's treasure and boys respected that," Zuma said while addressing a group of women taking part in a virginity testing program in KwaZulu Natal. He added, "They would only have sex when permitted to do so by their families after marriage -- something which made them respect each other." However, some HIV/AIDS and women's advocates have said that virginity testing is an "affront to women's dignity and an ineffective response to a disease spread mainly by men," according to the Times. "Once again we are stigmatizing women and treating them as the main cause of the spread of HIV," Sharon Ekambaram of the AIDS Consortium said, adding that the practice has led many young women to engage in anal sex -- placing them at an increased risk of contracting HIV. Ekambaram also noted that the survey data indicated that women between 25 and 35 years old, not teenagers, were at the greatest risk of infection, often contracting HIV from their husbands. "If we send these messages, the rate of infections is not going to drop," she said (Reed, Financial Times, 9/24).