Almost 3 000 farm workers from 23 commercial farms in the Malelane, Musina and Tzaneen regions took part in the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) survey conducted over three months.
At least 39,5 percent of farm workers who donated blood anonymously were found to be HIV positive. This was more than twice the national prevalence rate of 18 percent.
HIV was higher in women than men with more than 46 percent of women testing HIV positive followed by a third of men.
Almost half of the workers in Malelane tested HIV positive which was the highest prevalence. This was a much higher than the district prevalence of 40 percent.
Malelane shares borders with Swaziland and Mozambique and a population that is 60 percent South African, 24 percent Mozambican and 14 percent Swazi.
Musina results showed an HIV prevalence of 28 percent, almost twofold that of the surrounding Vhembe district’s 14,7 percent. Most of the participants from the site were cross border migrants, an estimated 60 percent Zimbabwean and 38 percent South African.
The lowest prevalence was recorded in Tzaneen where almost a third (26,3%) were HIV positive. This was still slightly higher than the 25,2 percent prevalence in the district
Dr Erick Ventura, IOM’s Regional Coordinator for Migration Health said: ‘While new HIV infections among adults and young people have dropped nationally, it is very worrying that the epidemic remains shockingly high in the commercial agricultural sector. There is a clear need to intensify HIV prevention efforts in spaces of vulnerability such as farms.’
Researchers refrained from identifying a single factor that could be attributed to the high HIV rates in farm areas. They cited multiple factors including multiple and concurrent partnerships, transactional sex, irregular use of condoms, the presence of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and tuberculosis as possible underlying causes.
Their recommendations included increased access to health care for farm workers, identifying some of the most vulnerable areas in the region, addressing gender norms that increase risky behaviour and vulnerability among farm workers and addressing the escalating need for workplace health policies to cater for both permanent and seasonal farm workers.