The Joint United Nations' Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) annual
report shows that the global HIV epidemic is either slightly
stabilising or decreasing. The stabilising epidemic has also been
noted in South Africa which has the world's largest HIV epidemic
with 5.7 million infections.
Sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for the greatest portion of the
world's burden of disease. Two-thirds of those living with HIV
are from this region and three-quarters of those who died of
AIDS-related illnesses last year also lived in sub-Saharan
Africa. But what does it actually mean to say that the epidemic
"Here, in southern Africa, what we have experienced is rapid
increases in prevalence rates and now a stabilisation for about
the last four or five years. But that stabilisation is basically
driven by the number of new infections being matched by the
number of deaths due to AIDS... There is no reduction in the rates
of HIV infection. That's what we're seeing. We're seeing a pretty
constant rate of HIV infection, but in terms of the prevalence
rate it's being offset by the rate of deaths due to AIDS. What we
want to see is a reduction in the rate of new infections",
explained Mark Stirling, the Regional Director of UNAIDS's
support team in east and southern Africa.
UNAIDS's report notes that Southern Africa continues to be the
epicentre of the epidemic throughout the continent. More than 30%
HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths last year occurred in the
sub-region. However, stabilisation of the epidemic has been noted
in three countries - Malawi, Zambia and South Africa. But South
Africa still has the largest population of people with HIV in the
world, an estimated 5.7 million people.
"The stabilisation of prevalence rates is across the full age
range, 15 - 49. What we're seeing if you break down prevalence
rates is very, very low levels of HIV infection amongst young
girls and boys until the age of about 14, 15. And then an
extremely rapid increase in rates of HIV infection, particularly
amongst girls from 15 - 24 years, and that's going from round
about 2% to round about 20, 25%. And that is a six-fold greater
number of infections than amongst young boys. But then as we move
on from around about 25, these rates of infections amongst boys
and girls, men and women sort of equalise", said Stirling
describing the nature of South Africa's epidemic.
He added that "we have no reason to claim comfort in the success
of prevention efforts through stabilisation of the epidemic".
However, a few countries have shown a slight reduction in new
infections over the last decade. In southern Africa these are
Zimbabwe and Botswana, while in east Africa they are Uganda,
Kenya and parts of Tanzania.
This report, unveiled just before the 17th International AIDS
Conference to be held in Mexico starting this Sunday, should give
food for thought to delegates on how to improve prevention
campaigns - the only way to reduce HIV infection levels in the
absence of a successful scientific intervention.