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[CAPE TOWN] Two studies released this week broadly agree on the number of people infected with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, which should benefit planning and policy making.

In the past, South African studies focusing on HIV/AIDS infection rates have produced widely divergent figures.

The studies were released independently this week by two of the country's major research bodies to coincide with World AIDS Day (1 December). Both suggest a deepening crisis, with about one in nine (five million) South Africans infected with HIV.

Earlier this year, the country's main statistics agency, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) and the health department, published two widely different estimates. Stats SA said 4.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV, while the health department put the number at more than 6.3 million.

The two new studies struck an unprecedented middle ground in their estimate of about five million infections.

The first — published on Monday by the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) — found there had been an estimated 530,000 new HIV infections between June 2004 and June 2005, suggesting the epidemic is far from slowing. 

The figures were derived from a model developed by the ASSA that incorporates surveys of HIV prevalence among pregnant women attending government clinics, a household survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in 2002, a local youth survey, data from the most recent population census, and death registration records.

The second study, commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and published by the HSRC, surveyed households across the country and included HIV tests on 15,800 people.

Although the response rate was only 55 per cent, the researchers took this into account when working out the results for the general population, said the HSRC's executive director, Olive Shisana.

The HSRC survey also looked at South Africans' sexual behaviour and attitudes to HIV/AIDS.

Some of the findings suggest that misinformation and lack of knowledge about the disease remain widespread, and raise concerns about how effective the multitude of HIV prevention campaigns currently underway in the country are.

Almost a third of respondents aged over 50, and a fifth of those aged 12-14, were unsure whether HIV caused AIDS, or firmly believed it did not. This suggested these age groups had been neglected by prevention campaigns, said Shisana.

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