‘Alarming’ HIV rise in young South African women

HIV/AIDS awareness in South Africa Copyright: IRD/ Elisabeth Deliry Antheaume

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An ‘alarming’ increase in new HIV infections in young South African women suggests that outreach strategies — such as condom use and abstinence programmes — are failing to curb high-risk behaviour among teenagers and young adults, say researchers.

The research, published in the March issue of the South African Medical Journal, suggests that poverty plays a significant role in increasing vulnerability to HIV.

Researchers sampled blood from nearly 16,000 South Africans.

They found that women accounted for 90 per cent of all new HIV infections in the 15–24 age group. In the 20–29 age group, women were six times more likely to be HIV positive than men of the same age.

People living in crowded slums had ‘by far’ the highest incidence of HIV, followed by those living in isolated and under-resourced rural regions.

The study also indicates that the epidemic — at roughly 1,500 new infections a day — is expanding faster than has been estimated and planned for by the government.

“These findings suggest that the current prevention campaigns do not have the desired impact, particularly among young women'” said co-author Thomas Rehle, of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), in a statement.

The researchers identified other particularly vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, widowed women, and young children who had not been infected with mother-to-child transmission and may have been victims of sexual abuse.

The authors suggest that economic development — particularly for young women — will be as significant as government policies aimed at empowering them or giving access to anti-retroviral drugs.

On a more encouraging note, the message of condom use does seem to be getting through, according to HSRC researcher Victoria Pillay, co-author of the paper. Young men who reported using a condom the last time they had sex were far less likely to have HIV.

And a survey of 4,500 teenagers and young adults in Cape Town, carried out by the US-based University of Michigan and the University of Cape Town found that condom use by 18-year-old girls had increased dramatically from 62 per cent to 75 per cent between 2002 and 2005.

In a separate development, South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka today (March 15) consulted with researchers, nongovernmental organisations, civil servants, unions and business leaders on a new national strategic plan for HIV/AIDS.

The plan is scheduled to run from 2007 to 2011.

Link to full paper in South African Medical Journal

Reference: South African Medical Journal 97, 194 (2007)