Zimbabwe’s HIV infection rate has fallen to around 20 percent of the population from 25 percent five years ago, apparently due to more condom use and fewer sex partners, the UNAIDS agency said on Tuesday.
But Zimbabwe, with a population of some 12.5 million, still has among the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates and rates could start rising again, the Geneva-based U.N. agency said.
“UNAIDS sees the evidence of decline as encouraging, but underlines that the challenge now is to ensure that the downward trend in Zimbabwe is sustained,” it said in a brief statement posted on its website - http://www.unaids.org.
Its preliminary review of epidemiological and behavioural data will be officially published in December as soon as final data is incorporated, the statement said.
“From 1-in-4 people being infected, the declines mean this is now roughly 1-in-5,” said UNAIDS spokeswoman Beth Magne-Watts.
“It is good news, but we don’t have the complete study yet.”
If confirmed, the drop in the HIV rate would be a rare piece of good news for Zimbabwe as it battles its worst economic and political crisis since independence in 1980.
But the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expressed caution, saying AIDS deaths had lowered the HIV rate and noting that girls, particularly orphans, were still at massive risk.
HIV infection is a viral infection caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that gradually destroys the immune system, resulting in infections that are hard for the body to fight.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Acute HIV infection may be associated with symptoms resembling mononucleosis or the flu within 2 to 4 weeks of exposure. HIV seroconversion (converting from HIV negative to HIV positive) usually occurs within 3 months of exposure.
“On the one hand the drop comes as a result of successful interventions in behaviour change on the part of Government, partners and donors, though part of the drop must also be attributed to mortality to AIDS-related deaths,” UNICEF’s Zimbabwe representative Festo Kavishe said in a statement.
“Four out of five new infections in the 15-24 year-old age group are among girls, and orphaned girls in Zimbabwe are now three times more likely to contract HIV than their non-orphaned peers,” he said.
CASUAL SEX DECLINES
Health Minister David Parirenyatwa has attributed the drop in infection rates to behavioural change, saying surveys had shown casual sexual encounters were on the decline, as were cases of sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
“Girls are now delaying when it comes to starting sexual activity and almost everyone in the country has an understanding of what HIV is all about,” Parirenyatwa told Monday’s edition of the state’s Herald newspaper.
“Everyone now seems to know the importance of preventing HIV and to an extent are trying their best to avoid getting infected, which should mean they are practicing safe sex.”
AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is the final and most serious stage of HIV disease, which causes severe damage to the immune system.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AIDS begins when a person with HIV infection has a CD4 cell count below 200. (CD4 is also called “T-cell”, a type of immune cell.) AIDS is also defined by numerous opportunistic infections and cancers that occur in the presence of HIV infection.
Southern Africa has borne the brunt of the AIDS pandemic.
Zimbabwe’s neighbour South Africa has the highest caseload with more than 5 million people with HIV/AIDS - or one in nine of its people - while tiny Swaziland has the world’s highest infection rate with nearly two in five infected.
UNAIDS said HIV prevalence among pregnant Zimbabwean women declined to 21.3 percent last year from 24.6 percent in 2002.
“It appears as if there could have been a reduction in the reported number of sexual partners in recent years and an increase in condom use with non-regular partners,” it said.
Activists welcomed the news, but urged against complacency.
“Yes, it’s good it has dropped but we still have a lot of work to do. We still need to maintain a high level of prevention and to scale-up treatment to those affected,” said Sara Page, deputy director of the Zimbabwe-based Southern African HIV/AIDS Information Dissemination Service’s (SAFAIDS).
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD