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S. Africa turns corner in battle against AIDS

THE number of new HIV infections among South African teens has dropped significantly, prompting hope that national efforts to tackle the epidemic have finally turned a corner after years of denial and delay.

A report by the Human Sciences Research Council released yesterday said that although young South Africans continue to have multiple sexual partners - a factor that has driven South Africa's epidemic - they are increasingly heeding advice to use condoms.

"There is clearly light at the end of the tunnel," said Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.

Motsoaledi, a respected medical doctor, became health minister last month. He must overcome the legacy of former President Thabo Mbeki, who denied the link between HIV and AIDS, and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who mistrusted conventional anti-AIDS drugs and promoted beetroot and lemon instead.

"Unfortunately we spent a lot of time fighting each other. I am quite sure that we are going to stop fighting each other and start fighting the disease," said Motsoaledi. "I am hoping that in the next few years the results will be much more encouraging than this," he said.

During nearly 10 years of neglect, new HIV infections reached a peak of 1,000, with nearly 1,000 deaths from AIDS every day.

The council's report estimated that around 5.2 million South Africans were living with HIV last year - the highest number of any country in the world.

The report said that HIV prevalence in children between 2 and 14 fell from 5.6 percent in 2002 to 2.5 percent last year, mainly thanks to the spread of drugs to prevent women passing on the virus to their children.

Young women continue to bear the brunt of the epidemic, with nearly one third of women aged 20 to 34 are infected with the virus, the report said. Infection rates peak later in men.

In rare good news, the report said that HIV incidence - the number of new infections - among teens was falling. For instance, incidence among 18-year-olds halved between 2005 and 2008 to 0.8 percent and in 20-year-olds it decreased from 2.2 percent to 1.7 percent. Both falls were attributed to an increase in condom use.


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