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Secondary school attendance can lead to a lower risk of Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection amongst young people in rural South Africa, according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on Thursday.
The study, a collaboration between the Wits School of Public Health and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), examined sexual behaviour and HIV prevalence among 916 young men and 1003 young women aged 14 to 25 in rural South Africa.
"We wanted to know whether the youth who remain in school are at higher or lower risk of HIV infection, compared to their similar, out-of-school peers," said a researcher from the University of Wits, Dr Julia Kim.
The team, led by Dr James Hargreaves of the LSHTM's Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit, found that among both sexes, those in school reported fewer sexual partners, compared to their out-of-school peers.
For female students, this partner reduction was accompanied by other protective behaviours such as greater condom use, less frequent sex and partners who were closer to their own age.
However, male students were much less likely to be HIV positive than their out-of-school peers.
"Our study suggests that, in South Africa, being in school can shape young people's social networks, leading to less high-risk sexual behaviour and therefore, lower rates of HIV infection," said Hargreaves.
"We also recently conducted a review of 36 studies across sub-Saharan Africa which came to the same conclusions - that across a number of countries, those with higher education may now be at lower risk of HIV infection, reversing previous trends."
In light of recent setbacks, such as the disappointing closure of the Merck HIV vaccine trial, Hargreaves said potential "social vaccines" which can play a critical role in HIV prevention - in addition to biomedical interventions - should not be overlooked.
Merck & Company unexpectedly halted the trial of its experimental HIV vaccine because it failed in its two main objectives, to prevent infection and to lower the amount of HIV in the blood among those who became infected.
"There is a need to accelerate efforts to increase access to education, including secondary education, if we are going to make an impact on this epidemic."
Hargreaves said it was encouraging that African governments, the G8, the World Bank, and others had committed to these goals.
Now there was even more evidence on why it should be done, he said.