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HIV is still a challenge

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Consistent condom use is low, and more children are engaging in sexual activities before the age of 15

PROMISE: Results from HVTN 100 show stronger immune responses than those recorded in RV144. Picture: Moeletsi Mabe

THE MAIN findings of the South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence, Behaviour and Communication Survey 2017, released on Tuesday by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, are worrying, but paradoxically also a source of optimism.

The positive news from the survey findings is that the country – which has the world’s highest HIV/Aids prevalence – is on the right track with a rise in HIV testing, medical male circumcision and provision of antiretroviral treatment (ART). This is evidenced in the significant decline in new infections to 0.48 percent, translating to an estimated 231 100 new HIV infections in the country in 2017. Although still high, this was a decline of 44 percent since the last study of 2012.

The bad news is that the HIV incidence rate was generally higher among females aged 15 to 24 years old where the number of new infections was three times that of their male counterparts.

Consistent condom use is low, and more children are engaging in sexual activities before the age of 15.

The 2017 survey is the fifth of a series of studies conducted by a consortium of scientists led by the Human Sciences Research Council, with previous studies being done in 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2012.

Organisations that carried out the study include the SA Medical Research Council, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and various research agencies.

Surveys were conducted in South African households between January and December last year, with more than 33 000 people interviewed and almost 24 000 being tested for HIV.

About 7.9 million South Africans were living with HIV in 2017, with KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Eastern Cape being hardest hit.

The survey found that an estimated 4.4 million people living with HIV were on ART, thanks to the government’s praiseworthy ART programme.

Scientists agree the human immunodeficiency virus is probably the most highly mutable of all known viruses, a characteristic which greatly complicates antiretroviral therapy and bedevils the design of a protective vaccine.

It is likely that a successful vaccine is still some time away, and other modes of prevention will need to be dependent on such shields as safe sex practices, circumcision and, perhaps in the near future, effective microbicides.