HIV prevention messages appear to be having an impact on the sexual behaviour of South Africans who also have a very clear understanding of the key aspects of HIV/AIDS.

And contrary to popular belief, participants in the Nelson Mandela/HSRC study on HIV/AIDS released in Johannesburg today (Thursday) expressed a good knowledge that the disease was not caused by witchcraft and understood that it could not be cured by sex with a virgin. In addition, the majority of South Africans surveyed said they accepted people living with HIV/AIDS

Some of the key findings of the survey are:

Condoms: HIV prevention messages appear to be having an impact on young people (15-24), with 57.1% of young men and 46.1% of young women reporting condom use at last sexual encounter. Generally, over 90% of participants reported that they could get condoms if they needed them.

Sexual activity: Few children aged 12-14 were sexually active, while only 25% of 15-17 year olds reported to be having sex. The average age at which young men and women started having sex was 18. Amongst those youth (15-24) who were sexually active, most (70%) had sex four or less times a month. In addition, 84.7% of youth and 93.5% of adults reported having only one partner in the past year. The majority of those who had more than one partner were youth from informal settlements.

Significantly, 38% of young women and 16.8% of young men reported changing their sexual behaviour in the past few years. The most common change was being faithful to one partner, followed by condom use then abstinence.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): The link between STIs and HIV was clearly established. Although only 2.6% of participants admitted to having had an STI over the previous three months, 38.9% of these were found to be HIV positive compared to 13.2% of those who had not reported STIs in the same time.

Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT): While most people knew about VCT, only 18.9% of those over the age of 15 had taken an HIV test. Most had done so because they were pregnant or for insurance purposes. Almost two-thirds of those not tested did not regard themselves as being at risk.

Socio-cultural practices: Polygamy, dry sex, anal sex, rites of death for widows and consultation with traditional/alternative healers in the past year were uncommon. However, circumcision and lobola were widespread.

Sources of HIV info: Children said their main source of HIV/AIDS education was their schools (85.9% of children aged 12-14 and 75.7% of those aged 15-24). Parents were also an important source of information for 39.9% of 12-14 year olds and 54.8% of those aged 15-24. Healthworkers in health facilities were an important source for all age groups, particularly people aged 25-49 (76.8%).

HIV knowledge: Participants expressed good knowledge of key aspects of HIV, including that it was not caused by witchcraft and could not be cured by sex with a virgin. In addition, the majority of South Africans said they accepted people living with HIV/AIDS

Socio-economic status: There was no significant difference in HIV prevalence between those employed (14.2%) and unemployed (12.1%). Wealthy Africans and less wealthy Africans had similar levels of risk. However, more data needs to be collected to analyse the relationship between poverty and HIV.

Orphans: 13% of children had lost a mother, father or both partners (not necessarily as a result of AIDS). In addition, 3% of households were child-headed (run by a person aged 12-18), with the highest rate in informal settlements.

Political perceptions: 63.8% of South Africans older than 15 believed political leaders were committed to controlling HIV/AIDS, but only 47.5% thought sufficient resources were being allocated to this.

Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs: Almost all South Africans (96.5%) thought ARVs should be provided for prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT), while 95% said ARVs should be available to those living with HIV/AIDS.