A recent report incorrectly stated that 28% of schoolgirls in South Africa are HIV positive, the Health Department said.
"It only applied to a very small area in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, where HIV was prevalent - six or seven schools," department spokesman Joe Maila said.
On March 14, the Sowetan ran the headline: 28% of schoolgirls are HIV positive, based on comments by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.
Sapa lifted the essence of the story. Fact-checking organisation Africa Check said the lifted story, with the incorrect percentage, went on to be rewritten and widely distributed until it went global.
Africa Check editor Julian Rademeyer said had the figure been checked, it would have been found to be wrong.
According to the 2011 National Antenatal Sentinel HIV and Syphilis Prevalence Survey in SA, which the health department published last year, prevalence among women aged between 15 and 19 was around 12.7%.
This was a decrease on the previous year's 14%.
Rademeyer called the story "an uncritical rehashing of a half-heard statement made by the minister during a 'taking Parliament to the people event' in Carolina in Mpumalanga province".
"The minister of health did not say '28% of school girls in South Africa are HIV positive'," Africa Check quoted Maila as saying.
Maila alerted Sapa to the inaccuracy, before the Africa Check statement was issued.
He said he contacted the journalist at the Sowetan, who "wasn't interested", so he individually approached news companies, locally and internationally, which had used the figure, to point out the error and have it corrected.
At the time, he told Sapa he would send a statement with the correct information, but did not.
Rademeyer said: "As we know ourselves, checking these sorts of facts is not always easy, but when a figure is as shocking as the one mistakenly thought to have been given as a national average by the minister, it is important for journalists to check before publishing."
The Sowetan's editor was not immediately available for comment.