A report released by the Human Sciences Research Council into HIV prevalence and incidence in South Africa showed a significant decline in new infections in 2017, compared with a similar survey five years ago.
But more concerning for researchers was the occurrence of risky behaviour among respondents. It found consistent condom use was low, early sexual debuts before the age of 15 had increased among males, and more than a third of young women had sex with older men.
“This suggests that progress is being made in increasing ART (antiretroviral treatment) coverage. However, more needs to be done to link those who test HIV-positive to care as soon as they are tested, in line with the policy of test and treat,” said Dr Sizulu Moyo of the HIV/Aids, STIs and TB research centre.
The survey found there has been a significant decline in the HIV incidence rate at 0.48%. This translated to an estimated 231 100 new infections in 2017. The incidence rate was generally higher among females aged 15 to 24, where the number of new infections was three times that of their male counterparts.
“It is clear from the study that a large percentage of respondents did not consider themselves to be at risk. We need to think about how to change this because unless people think about the risks, they will continue to participate in risky sexual behaviour,” said Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi.
The survey is the fifth wave of a series of cross-sectional studies conducted by a consortium of scientists led by the HSRC. About 7.9 million South Africans were living with HIV in 2017.
Motsoaledi turned his focus on male circumcision and said some successes had been made. “We know medical male circumcision is protective. It is gratifying to see that the number is raising. We need to increase the rate, especially among those between 15 and 35 years of age,” he said.
Dr Mpumi Zungu from the HSRC Research Programme said little behaviour change seems to have occurred since 2012.
“This suggests that most of the reduction in new infections was due to the impact of the expanded ARV treatment programme.”
The findings of the study highlight that the country is on the right track with an increase in HIV testing, medical male circumcision and the provision of antiretroviral treatment.