S.Africa HIV/AIDS rate falls on behavior change: minister

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The prevalence of HIV/AIDS among pregnant women in South Africa has fallen for the first time in eight years, pointing to a possible decline across the entire population, the health minister said on Thursday.

Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, speaking at the release of an annual report that tracks infection among pregnant women, said its findings suggested young people were changing their behavior, increasingly adopting the principles of abstinence, faithfulness and condom use.

The report showed that 29.1 percent of the pregnant women who visited antenatal clinics last year were infected with HIV, down from 30.2 percent in 2005. The 2006 survey sampled 33,034 women, more than double the 16,510 surveyed in 2005.

“There is a decrease in the prevalence of HIV among pregnant women who use public health facilities, suggesting that this may be a beginning of a decline in the HIV prevalence rates,” Tshabalala-Msimang said.

Pregnant women are used internationally as a barometer for the level of infection in the overall population.

South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection, and after being widely criticized for being too slow to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it unveiled a program only a few months ago that sets targets for treatment, under the guidance of Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The critics’ main target has been Tshabalala-Msimang, whose emphasis on traditional remedies over more widely accepted modern medication to fight HIV has drawn global outrage.

“An encouraging observation is that the HIV prevalence trends among pregnant women under the age of 20 continued to show a decline, from 16.1 percent in 2004 to 15.9 percent in 2005 and 13.7 percent in 2006,” the report said.

The survey showed South Africa’s overall HIV infection rate fell slightly to 11.5 from 12 percent of its 47 million people.

Researchers say that every day, an average of 1,000 people in the country die from AIDS, and 1,500 new HIV cases are reported -- the majority of the new cases women under 20.

The minister told an earlier briefing that the government’s post-apartheid health strategy of providing free health care for pregnant and lactating women had begun to pay off.

She said the government hoped its national strategic plan for HIV and AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections would sustain the decline in infections across the whole population.

Dubbed “Dr. Beetroot” for her promotion of food nutrients as a treatment for HIV/AIDS, the health minister insisted that work on incorporating traditional medicines in health care would continue.

“I must emphasize here that our work on traditional medicine is much broader than the response to HIV and AIDS. We believe that traditional medicines have an important role in the health care delivery system,” she said.