Over 680 teachers in KwaZulu-Natal – more than 55 a month – died in-service in 2000. Most died from unspecified illnesses, and the average age at the time of death was 36.

Between 1999 and 2000, there was a massive 70% increase in deaths of female teachers between the ages of 30 and 34.

This is according to figures released last week by the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of Natal.

“The teachers’ mortality pattern in terms of age and gender is consistent with what we know of the impact of AIDS on the general population,” says HEARD research associate Peter Badcock-Walters.

He warns that unless the Department of Education trains and recruits large numbers of teachers by the end of the decade, it may not be able to meet KwaZulu-Natal’s educational needs.

“There is already a relatively high teacher attrition rate of about 6% a year, and AIDS is adding to this problem,” says Badcock-Walters. “The private sector has traditionally recruited teachers for its middle level management. As HIV/AIDS takes its toll on business, this recruitment is likely to increase.

We also need to acknowledge that these are in-service deaths and may only present half the picture, as many teachers die soon after leaving the service”.

AIDS-related deaths (around 1% of teachers in 2000) are expected to reach 5% by 2010.

If these trends continue, projections suggest that over 60 000 new teachers will be needed by 2010 to fill the gaps. The total number of provincial teachers at present is 75 000, with around 68 000 of these publicly paid. It has been estimated that it costs around R100 000 to train every new teacher.

Badcock-Walters says that unless these trends can be changed, the department may need to consider a number of different strategies to address the looming teacher shortage.

These policy options could include shortening the four-year pre-service training of new teachers; increasing the retirement age and incentives to attract teachers who have left back to the profession.

Finally, says Badcock-Walters, “sooner or later, the strategic use of anti-retroviral drugs to prolong the careers of teachers living with AIDS may have to be addressed. Most importantly though, teachers, like everyone else, have to reduce the risks they face and provide role models for their learners”.

Compiling the mortality figures was complicated by the fact that three quarters of schools do not keep proper records, according to a random sample survey conducted as part of the study. Badcock-Walters and his team used three data sources. The first, and most reliable, is the provincial personnel salary system (Persal), which has to remove teachers from the salary system when they die.

However, there is an average time lag of around five months between the death and its registration on Persal’s system, which limits the reliability of annual figures for the last year or even two.

Other sources are the department’s annual school survey, although only 11% of schools answered the section on teacher mortality in 2000, and a 100-school random sample survey commissioned by the provincial education department.

While there was some variation in the number of deaths reported from the three sources, which confirmed an undercount in the annual survey, all three data sets show the same trends. They confirm over 90% of teachers dying are under the age of 49, and over 80% of these deaths are due to unspecified illnesses.

Meanwhile the provincial education department announced last week that a special policy unit would conduct further research on how HIV/AIDS was affecting teachers and what could be done about the problem.