updated 3/14/2007 1:18:24 PM ET 2007-03-14T17:18:24

The government proposed a five-year plan Wednesday to cut in half the number of new HIV infections in South Africa, saying it had failed to persuade young people to change their sexual habits.

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The government also said the country needed to better address the stigma associated with the disease, which discouraged many people from being tested, and vowed to expand its treatment and care program to cover 80 percent of people with AIDS.

The report’s frankness — and the warmth with which it was received by AIDS activists — marked a turnaround in government rhetoric on AIDS, after years of international condemnation for policies that many said went against medical advice and activists’ efforts. The health minister in particular has been criticized for questioning antiretroviral treatments and promoting nutritional remedies, such as garlic and lemons, to fight the disease.

“This plan marks a turning point in the struggle to stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” said Zwelinzima Vavi, the general-secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. “We hail the new spirit, which signals the end to acrimonious debate and the standoff between government and important sectors of our people.”

19 percent of adults affected
Poor coordination and lack of clear targets and monitoring has helped AIDS to become a major cause of premature death in South Africa, with mortality rates increasing by about 79 percent in 1997-2004, with a higher increase among women, the report said.

About 5.54 million people were estimated to be living with HIV in South Africa in 2005, with 19 percent of the adult population affected. Women in the 25-29 age group were the worst affected, with prevalence rates of up to 40 percent.

“There are still too many people living with HIV, too many still getting infected,” the report said. “The impact on individuals and households is enormous.” Children were also vulnerable, with high rates of mother-to-child transmission.

A separate report from the Human Sciences Research Council HIV said there were an estimated 571,000 new HIV infections in 2005 — roughly 1,500 per day. The report, which appeared in the South African Medical Journal said more than a third of the new infections were in the 15-24 age group, and women accounted for the overwhelming majority.

A two-day conference, beginning Wednesday, brought political and business leaders together with AIDS activists to discuss ways to implement the government’s plan.

“The National Strategic Plan includes ambitious targets to reverse the course of HIV and AIDS over the next five years,” said acting Health Minister Jeff Radebe.

He was appointed last month to replace Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who left her duties due to illness. Since taking over, Radebe has sought to mend fences with doctors and AIDS activists, including the main Treatment Action Campaign group, after years of Tshabalala-Msimang advising South Africans that natural remedies were better for fighting AIDS than antiretrovirals.

Change behavior
Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, appointed last year to efforts in revamping the country’s AIDS strategy, said the government had set aside $1.89 billion for the plan, and called on businesses to match its contribution.

The proposed plan — meant to be finalized by the South African National AIDS Council later this month — set a target for reducing the number of new HIV infections by 50 percent by 2011.

To reach the target, it called for more effort in empowering women, who often are targeted in sexual abuse, and to encourage people to be tested for the virus.

More also must be done to promote behavior change in young people, the report said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka urged youths to delay their first sexual experiences.

“We would like to make sure our young people believe there can be and there will be an Africa free of AIDS,” she said.

Nearly 250,000 people are receiving antiretroviral therapy — about 20 percent of the estimated number of people living with HIV.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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