HIV and AIDS prevention

Gill PriceBy Gill Price

There was a time when HIV and AIDS was a deadly disease with no cure. It claimed countless lives, destroyed families and created despair.  Back then, the commemoration of World Aids Day on 01 December was a sombre occasion; filled with tributes to people we had lost.

Today the situation is very different and this was reflected during this year’s commemoration. Speaking during World Aids Day, Deputy President Paul Mashatile revealed that according to the sixth South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence, and Behavioural Survey done by the Human Sciences Research Council, there are about 7.8 million people living with HIV in our country, which is a decrease from 14 percent in 2017 to 12.7 percent in 2022.

While this decrease is only marginal, it reflects that our prevention and treatment programmes are working. The provision of life saving anti-retrovirals has been at the core of our strategy to save lives. Our antiretroviral treatment is free to anyone who tests positive, no matter what their CD4 count is.

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) reduces the amount of HIV in the body (viral load) in those who test positive for HIV. Having less than 1 000 copies of HIV/ml blood means viral load suppression has been achieved, and the person’s chance of getting ill or transmitting HIV is reduced.

Because of this intervention millions of South Africans who previously had no hope now live productive lives. We have also made massive progress in reducing the number of new HIV infections, and treatment has also led to an increase in life expectancy and low levels of mother-to-child HIV transmission rates.

These successes are helping to turn the tide however, we are not out of the woods yet. The sixth South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence, and Behavioural Survey shows concerning statistics in certain age groups, especially for those aged between 25 and 49 years. HIV prevalence for females stood at 34.2 percent for the ages 35 to 39. Among males, HIV prevalence stood at 27.1 percent in the age group 45 to 49 years. There has also been an increased incidence of HIV infection among adolescent girls aged 15 to 19.

These statistics make for sobering reading, especially as it shows that young people, and especially women in the prime of their lives are often most at risk.  As a society we must do more to protect young and vulnerable women from those who seek to harm them. 

Addressing this concerning issue, Deputy President Paul Mashatile said:”We must take extraordinary measures as a society to protect kids against immoral predators. We must ensure that children have a safe environment to discuss the issues influencing their sexual conduct and the pressures they are under. We must stand with them and educate them about their rights and sexual health.”

These powerful words are stark reminder of the challenges we face, despite the progress we have made.  Even though ARTs are now freely available and they allow people to live long and productive lives, we must never forget that prevention is the best solution.

If you are sexually active, protect yourself and your sexual partners by always using a condom. Condoms are freely available at all health facilities and there is no excuse not to practise safe sex. If you are sexually active you should limit your number of sexual partners. Your risk of getting HIV and other STIs increases when you have multiple partners.

Another important way to fight HIV is to know your status. Get tested today to know your status as testing is critical in managing the disease and curbing its spread.  All sexually active South Africans are encouraged to test at least once a year. Knowing your HIV status helps in making informed decisions on preventative measures, treatment, care and support.

Once you know your status, you can immediately begin treatment, and if a person takes their treatment consistently, they will achieve virus suppression. Any person who tests positive can immediately begin Antiretroviral therapy which is widely available at public health care facilities nationwide. Antiretroviral therapy works by reducing the amount of virus in the blood to undetectable levels and ensure that the virus cannot be passed on.

While this is good news for our prevention efforts and for persons who have HIV, it is not a green light for unsafe sexual practices.  Especially as we are struggling to retain people on treatment. 

Although this year’s commemoration of World Aids Day has brought welcome news the fight is far from over.  As always, our actions are key in what happens next. By practising safe sex, being tested, and started treatment as soon as possible we can begin to imagine a future where HIV is no longer a threat to our nation and her people.