Independent online, 25 October 2002, 'Today's virgins, tomorrow's Aids victims'

By Elize Jacobs

Most South African teenagers have sex for the first time at the age of 14 or 15 and half of all today's 15-year-olds in
South Africa and Zimbabwe will eventually die of Aids.

This was the grim picture painted at a seminar hosted on Thursday in
Pretoria by the Department of Social Development and the Human Sciences Research Council where findings of a study on fertility in South Africa were made public.

The meeting was also told that although
South Africa's birth rate had declined by an average of 15 percent a year over the past 10 years, teenage pregnancy figures were still alarmingly high.

South Africa's overall fertility rate dropped faster and more drastically than any other sub-Saharan region. Some reasons given for this drop were past government population limitation policies, wide use of contraceptives, birth spacing, abortions, higher incomes and to a lesser extent, the prevalence of HIV/Aids.

Social Development and Welfare Minister Zola Skweyiya told the meeting that although fertility had declined, a high birth rate still appeared to be a demographic reality in certain developing areas. At the same time, teenage pregnancies remained a huge problem, especially in poor and disadvantaged communities.

Dr Kim Eva, from the University of Witwatersrand's reproductive health research unit who did research on adolescent fertility, agreed. She added that the number of births to adolescents were set to increase over the next few decades.

Eva said adolescent fertility trends in South Africa
were markedly different to the rest of Africa.

She said while the country's total fertility rate of 2,9 births per woman was estimated to be one of the lowest in sub-Saharan region, childbearing levels for South African adolescents did not appear to be changing.

Adolescent childbearing was still significantly high, she said, adding that teenage pregnancies represented one third of all births. However, she said another difference between South Africa and other African countries was that early childbearing did not mean rapid or continuous subsequent fertility, because many young South African mothers returned to school after the birth of their first child.

Other research findings included that the high pregnancy rate among teenagers may be caused by a combination of factors, including low contraceptive use and high sexual activity among children at a younger age. Most of the youngsters interviewed said they were having sex at the age of 13 or 14.

Senior research scientist Professor Barbara Anderson, from the University of Michigan's department of sociology and who has been a visiting researcher in South Africa since 1995, said the drop in the birth rate in South Africa was drastic when compared with other developing countries.