77f4832379b5.jpgThe Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) was upbeat when it announced results of its bi-annual survey of HIV prevalence in UN member countries this week. UNAIDS says figures show that general HIV infections have been slowing down over the last decade. The agency also says that fewer people are dying because of expanded access to antiretroviral treatment.

‘€œNew HIV infections have fallen by nearly 20% in the last 10 years. You are looking at a trend. It’€™s been happening since 1999. We’€™ve had a fall from 3.1 million in 1999 to 2.5 million in 2009. AIDS-related deaths have also fallen by nearly 20% in the last five years from 2.1 million to 1.8 million in 2009. The efforts of antiretroviral therapy are really evident, especially in our region of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, where because of access we have seen 20% fewer deaths related to HIV than in 2004 before the expansion of access to antiretroviral treatment. And globally, deaths among children younger than 15, have actually started decreasing’€, said Professor Sheila Tlou, Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for eastern and southern Africa, when she announced the findings of the wide-ranging survey.

Sub-Saharan Africa still remains the cradle of HIV, with eastern and southern African regions hosting 50% of the world’€™s epidemic. But the report shows that 22 African countries are showing progress in reducing new infections. Of the five countries with the largest epidemics in the region, four countries ‘€“ Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa ‘€“ have reduced rates of new HIV infections by more than 25%.

‘€œHIV incidence is falling in 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2001 and 2009, the incidence of HIV infection declined by more than 25%. And, indeed, even the number of AIDS-related deaths declined by about 25%. We’€™ve had significant declines in HIV prevalence of more than 25% among young people and this has been documented in nine of the 23 countries in the region’€ Tlou said.

However, there is no change in patterns of infection among women and girls.

‘€œThe vulnerability of women and girls to HIV remains the same, with about 75% of all HIV-positive women in the world living in our region, especially young women and girls aged 15 ‘€“ 24. Thirteen women in sub-Saharan Africa become infected with HIV for every 10 men’€, she said.

Responding to UNAIDS’€™s finding on the level of HIV incidence among young women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign, Nonkosi Khumalo, drew similarities between the UNAIDS report and South Africa’€™s antenatal survey report for 2009.  

‘€œIt is not just in the UNAIDS report, but in our own antenatal survey study which was released about two weeks ago, which actually showed that between the ages of 30 ‘€“ 34 we still remain in this country with the highest level of HIV incidence, which is sitting at the moment at 41.5% and it was at 39.6% in 2007. There are many reasons for that. It might be that people are coming forward to test in numbers now or it might actually be signifying a social ill that still remains in many of the African regions in terms of the status of women’€, Khumalo said.

Recently-appointed Deputy Health Minister, Dr Gwen Ramokgopa, said the UNAIDS report shows that certain practices in the African region need to change in order to spare women, particularly the young, from HIV infection.

‘€œIf you look at the report that’€™s released, it indicates that it’€™s more young women or young girls that have sex early than young boys. And this is as a result of older men taking advantage of young girls. There are practices, for instance, in South Africa, like ukuthwala, in which young girls are abducted into forced marriages with older men. We need to identify such practices, whether they are based on religious stereotypes, traditional stereotypes and/or just the stereotypes in terms of the status of men or of women in society as translated by the high levels of sexual assault on women in South Africa’€, Ramokgopa said.

The report highlighted the importance of promoting human and gender rights, scaling up HIV prevention efforts and also called for a renewed commitment to funding the AIDS programme in order to maintain and build on current gains.