A new study by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has revealed that while KwaZulu-Natal remains the focal point of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, progress is being made on early diagnosis, intervention and treatment.
It has also commended government interventions on treatment in Eshowe and Mbongolwane in northern KwaZulu-Natal, saying that early diagnosis and administration of antiretroviral therapy are bearing fruit.
The findings also revealed interesting facts about those most at risk. The survey interviewed over 5 500 people between the ages of 15 and 59 between June and October last year. One of the most crucial findings was that 56% of women between 30 and 39 years old are HIV positive, compared to just 16% of men.
While it cannot be assumed that the findings of this study can merely be replicated in other parts of the province, what it does indicate is that efforts that are currently in place by health authorities are making inroads into curbing the spread of the disease.
MSF field co-ordinator in KwaZulu-Natal - Doctor Matthew Reid says: "When we look at that; by how many men and how many women, it was twice as high almost in women than in men.
"Around 31% in women overall and around 16% in men. Coverage or treatment was 75%, which is a good number. That’s high, showing that in that area the work that’s been done by the government has been effective in reaching the people that need treatment."
The survey revealed that over 85% of those interviewed had been tested for HIV, at least 6 months earlier. About 75% of those found to be HIV positive were aware of their status.
With knowledge comes the ability to do something about it - something that Reid says leads to the introduction of antiretroviral therapy as soon as possible. "A big proportion of the population had already had an HIV test…looking across all the people that were involved in the survey if they were positive, at least three quarters of them knew that they were positive. Knowledge of peoples’ status is important so that they can take measures to avoid transmission."
Knowledge of peoples’ status is important so that they can take measures to avoid transmission.
Within the survey area, HIV incidence - that looks at the rate of new infections - was found to be at 1.4% per year, meaning that 14 out of every 1 000 persons are infected annually.
Reid says this could be attributed to good awareness of HIV in the community, prevention methods like the use of condoms, and on how to treat it, once a positive diagnosis is received.
“Of the men that are infected they’re perhaps infecting more than one woman. In terms of prevention, it’s important that we focus on catching the young women before they get infected. We also need to focus on the men of course. If you look at the pattern of HIV infection, you can see that men tend to get infected at a lower level overall and later…”
Reid adds that there are chances of young men doing things that will prevent them from getting infected as they grow older.
This may be encouraging the use of condoms and doing male which has been shown to reduce the rate of transmissions.
Reid says while areas like Eshowe and Mbongolwane are showing positive responses to interventions to curb the spread of HIV, new infections in young people and especially women; continue to keep the disease alive.
In this project, Doctors without Borders has also been talking to the National Health Department to start antiretroviral therapy treatment sooner than is currently stipulated by South African HIV guidelines.