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AIDS burden shows need for female-biased prevention - Living with AIDS # 361
Khopotso Bodibe
August 7, 2008
A key feature of South Africa's HIV epidemic where 5.7 million people are positive is that among the 15 - 24 year olds infected, women and girls account for more than 90% of new infections. This needs a special focus on this group when designing prevention programmes, says UNAIDS.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa is stabilising, according to a report released last week by the Joint United Nations' Programme on HIV/AIDS. This means that there has not been a recognisable increase in the rate of new infections over the last few years. Instead, the infection rate has remained relatively constant. This, however, does not mean that the epidemic is declining as the country still holds the unenviable world's number one position in the stakes of the total number of people living with HIV. The fact that women and girls continue to be disproportionately infected points to a failure of HIV programmes in addressing the issues that place females at risk of HIV infection, says the United Nations' Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, Elizabeth Mataka.

"I think time has come for us to be bold and attack and question some of those cultural norms and practices that drive this epidemic and make women more vulnerable to infection - the issues of inter-generational sex, for example; issues of tolerance of male promiscuity, for example", she declared.

Mark Stirling, Director of the Joint United Nations' Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in east and southern Africa, agreed and added that there is an urgent need to reverse the pattern of HIV infection in women and girls.

"The changing of that vulnerability to HIV infection requires targeting of young women, but also requires targeting of older men. And that requires a questioning of social norms which allow older men to maintain sexual relationships with young women", he said.

This must be done as a matter of urgency despite news from UNAIDS last week that the country's epidemic is stabilising.

"This is not the time for complacency... The challenges are there. We need to keep on talking about them. We need to recognise them and we need to continue to find new ways of dealing with those challenges," said special envoy Elizabeth Mataka.



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