Independant On-line, Aids study shows fewer teenage infections, 27 August 2004

By James Hall

Mbabane - Far fewer Swazi teenage girls are HIV positive than previously estimated, bringing a rare glimmer of good news to a country fighting one of the world's worst Aids epidemics, according to a United Nations-sponsored study.

The study, which involved the first mass blood testing in the tiny African kingdom, found that younger teenage girls in particular appeared to be avoiding contracting HIV.

"About six percent of teenage girls are infected, instead of 20 percent or over as other surveys suggested," Alan Brody, country representative of the UN children's fund Unicef, which sponsored the study, said on Friday.

'Girls wanted to protect themselves against Aids'
The study's findings are the first good news health officials have had since the outbreak of Aids in Swaziland, which has one of the world's highest HIV prevalence rates with almost 39 percent of adults infected.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about two-thirds of the world's estimated 35 million Aids infections, and officials say the epidemic is a major threat to the continent's future.

The Swazi study, however, appeared to indicate that Aids education efforts are paying off.

More than 1 000 Swazis from randomly selected households in rural areas were interviewed and tested for the study.

Not enough males were at home to compile a statistically valid model, because in Swazi rural areas many men have gone to seek jobs in urban centres or have died of Aids.

"We found a generational shift, and a clear indication that anti-Aids messages began to have an effect around 2001," Brody said. About 40 percent of 19-year-old girls were HIV positive, dropping to six percent for girls aged 15 to 18 and three percent of those aged between eight and 14, the study found.

Brody said the assumption that more teenage girls were HIV-positive had been based on a 2002 survey of pregnant woman and new mothers from which HIV projections for other age groups were extrapolated, the method widely used across Africa to arrive at Aids infection estimates.

As 40 percent of women in their twenties were HIV positive, it was assumed high numbers of teens were also infected. "We were confused because we were witnessing behaviour change on the ground that was not reflected in the statistics. Girls wanted to protect themselves against Aids," said Brody.

Disputes over Africa's grim Aids statistics flared earlier this year after a Kenyan study appeared to show that UN estimates for Aids infections in the country were far too high.

South Africa, which by UN accounts has the world's highest HIV and Aids caseload with about five million infections, has said its own studies show it has about one million fewer than that.

UN statistical experts say volunteer testing and other methods can often miss high-risk groups or pockets of infection.




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