One in nine South Africans is HIV-positive, says report

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The Independent Online

One in four pregnant women in South Africa is infected with the Aids virus and one person in nine in the population as a whole is estimated to be HIV-positive, government figures released yesterday show.

One in four pregnant women in South Africa is infected with the Aids virus and one person in nine in the population as a whole is estimated to be HIV-positive, government figures released yesterday show.

The study gives the most accurate picture to date of the scale of the Aids crisis. It shows a steady rise over the past year in a country that already had the world's worst epidemic.

Of a population of 42 million, 4.7 million are now estimated either to be HIV-positive or already suffering from Aids. The total represents a 12 per cent rise on the previous year.

In the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, the infection rate was greater than one in every three people - 36.2 per cent last year, up from 32.5 per cent the previous year.

The Development Bank of Southern Africa said South Africa's population would begin to contract by 2016 when the number of deaths from Aids would exceed births.

Last week, President Thabo Mbeki rejected calls to declare a state of emergency over the disease, which would allow South Africa to produce cheap drugs without breaking World Trade Organisation rules protecting patent rights. Mr Mbeki told parliament the measure was not needed because South Africa had made its own law permitting the import and production of cheaper generic drugs. But implementation of the law has been stalled by a court case brought by the world's pharmaceutical giants, which will resume next month in Pretoria and is expected to last for at least a year.

Yesterday, the Danish government ordered Denmark's two main pharmaceutical companies to withdraw from the court action, brought by an association of 37 drug firms.

About 24 per cent of all women attending South Africa's antenatal clinics were found to be carrying HIV, the virus that leads to Aids - up from 22 per cent in the previous year. The findings put HIV-infection rates at their highest among women aged between 20 and 29.

A glimmer of hope in the new figures is that infection rates have dropped in women under the age of 20 and those over 35. This appears to indicate that recent education campaigns on sexual behaviour are beginning to have an impact.

The United Nations estimated in December that 34.3 million people in the world were infected with HIV - 24.5 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa where taboos about sex remain strong. Millions of children have been orphaned, and countries such as Botswana expect to lose at least half their workforce as a direct consequence of the pandemic.

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