South Africa, with about 11 percent of its population HIV positive, may finally be winning the battle to bring the killer AIDS disease under control, a study released Monday indicated.
The research, published in the African Journal of AIDS Research, delivered what it described as a “more positive scenario” for AIDS in South Africa, which is struggling with the highest single HIV/AIDS caseload in the world.
Study authors Thomas Rehle, an independent U.S. researcher, and Olive Shisana of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council developed a model based on data from HIV-prevalence surveys conducted in South African ante-natal clinics.
They said South Africa’s AIDS epidemic likely peaked in 2002 — when 4.69 million people were living with the disease out of a total population of 45 million — and would level off as fewer new infections were recorded.
The new epidemiological model is the first to utilize data from South Africa’s first national study on HIV prevalence, released late in 2002 by the Human Sciences Research Council and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The study projects that the annual number of AIDS related deaths in South Africa will peak in 2008 at 487,320 before declining to about 470,000 in 2010.
The number of new HIV infections in the key 15-49 age group — a leading indicator of how the epidemic will progress — has already dropped sharply from 4.2 percent in 1997 to 1.7 percent in 2003, the study said.
Drop in key age group
Overall HIV prevalence, or the percentage of the population aged between 15-49 infected with the disease, was also projected to drop from a high of 17.3 percent in 2001 to an estimated 15.2 percent in 2010.
Earlier studies had placed the incidence, prevalence and projected death numbers much higher. One report by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that as much as 37.9 percent of the sexually active adult population in South Africa could be HIV positive by 2010, with more than 900,000 deaths per year.
The study attributed the slowdown to a number of factors, including HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs that have led to changes in sexual behavior, and the fact that death is quickly thinning the ranks of the HIV-positive.
The authors emphasized there was “still much uncertainty” about the course of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, noting that policy changes such as the government’s recent decision to make anti-retroviral drug treatment more widely available could have a profound change on future numbers.
They also cautioned against reading the new, lower estimates as a sign that South Africa’s AIDS problem might have been exaggerated.
“Five million infections is still a huge burden for any country,” Rehle told Reuters in a telephone interview. “If there is a message here it is to stop fiddling with the numbers and get serious.”