HIV rates decline in South Africa, yet infections soar among young women aged 15-24, national survey finds

Protect yourself, protect your partner. Picture: cottonbro studio/Pexls

Protect yourself, protect your partner. Picture: cottonbro studio/Pexls

Published Apr 18, 2024


Long before Covid-19 started unsettling lives and livelihoods in South Africa, the nation was already grappling with a severe health crisis of its own.

South Africa has the largest HIV epidemic worldwide, with 19 % of the global HIV population calling it home.

Despite the daunting numbers, with over 3 million people still awaiting treatment and new infections hitting hard - especially among the youth - the HIV crisis threatens the very fabric of South Africa's future.

A silver lining appears as efforts to address sexual health begin to make headway. These initiatives are crucial in educating young South Africans about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), preventing teenage pregnancies, and increasing HIV awareness.

They emphasise the power of choice in safeguarding health and, ultimately, aid in reducing STI rates, and new HIV infection.

Amidst these challenges, the youth are stepping up, working alongside health professionals to spark a change with the #ForeverWena campaign.

students at Wits university .Picture: Supplied

This national movement is making waves in universities across the country, including UWC, UJ, Wits, UNMU, and UKKZN, where students are getting firsthand experience with HIV testing and engaging in open discussions about sexual health.

Talking to “Independent Media Lifestyle”, Charlene Olivier, the Creative Director from Ogilvy Health SA leading the #ForeverWena campaign, shares the enthusiasm behind this transformative initiative.

It's all about empowering young South Africans to lead the charge in reframing the conversation around sexual health and taking proactive steps towards a healthier future, she said.

South Africa has seen a slight dip in its HIV rates, offering a glimmer of hope in the fight against the virus. But it's not all good news.

The latest numbers from the National HIV Prevalence Survey reveal a worrying trend: infections among young women aged 15 to 24 are on the rise.

Olivier, speaking for the ForeverWena sexual health campaign, finds the mixed results fascinating. "It's definitely good news to see some decrease.

But the jump in cases among young women, coupled with fewer young men getting tested, makes you think. Is a drop of just 1 or 2% really enough? It does, however, highlight how important it is for young people to make healthy choices."

ForeverWena is all about breaking the cycle of HIV transmission. Olivier believes that armed with the right knowledge, this generation can truly make a difference.

Part of the optimism stems from young South Africans' awareness of preventive measures like PrEP, an indicator that the tide could be turning.

ForeverWena is stepping up to provide a trusted space for accurate sexual health information. "While Google has lots of info, it's crucial to have a reliable source for your sexual health queries," Olivier shared.

The campaign's website is packed with content vetted by medical professionals and features a chat box for personalised advice on sexual health questions.

It's part of ForeverWena's commitment to not just reduce new HIV infections but to ensure young South Africans have a confidential and safe place to learn about sexual health.

“It feels like we have opened up avenues to make these conversations an everyday thing.

“Destigmatising and demedicalising these topics in a way that allows young South Africans to lead their own sexual health journey based on whichever choices they make in their life.

“Whether they abstain or use a condom, testing is all options that are at their disposal,” Olivier said.

In a recent push towards emphasising the importance of HIV awareness in a country still rebounding from the pandemic, Olivier, a leading voice in the conversation, summarised the situation with hopeful realism.

"While we've seen a slight dip in HIV rates, thanks to ongoing efforts, there's much work to be done. Some areas report concerning statistics, underlining the need for a united effort to make a substantial difference," she explained.

The dynamic movement is championed by the youth, who are redefining the battle against HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) through a powerful mantra of self-love and self-care.

This new approach is a game-changer, aiming to shift the discourse around sexual health towards a more personal, less clinical dialogue.

"It's important for South African youth to prioritise their health, to understand that they have rights, choices, and options," Olivier added.

"If you can protect wena (yourself), you can protect yena (your partner or others)”.

Olivier believes that by adopting this mindset, individuals can make informed decisions for their well-being, thereby fostering open and non-judgmental conversations with partners and within households.

"Our goal is to make these discussions about sexual health more accessible and less daunting," she said.

“By encouraging an all-inclusive dialogue, the ForeverWena campaign hopes to empower everyone, especially the vulnerable, to feel confident in their choices around sexual health.

“This approach isn't just about fighting HIV—it's about changing the way we think about and discuss our health, making it a personal priority that contributes to the greater good.”