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ZIMBABWE: Prevention campaigns successful as HIV rate drops
December 08, 2005

JOHANNESBURG - Zimbabwe has become the first southern African country to register a decline in HIV prevalence, according to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

A review of recent epidemiological and behavioural data in 'Evidence for HIV decline in Zimbabwe', released by UNAIDS on Wednesday, said the incidence of new HIV infections had also declined.

The review, conducted by a team that included research staff from Britain's Imperial College, the prevalence of HIV among pregnant women declined from 26 percent in 2002 to 21 percent last year, and other data showed a similar trend.

The findings back up an earlier national survey, released in October, that showed that Zimbabwe's HIV prevalence rate had dropped dramatically in the past two years.

According to the October study - carried out by UNAIDS, the US Centres for Disease Control and several universities - the percentage of Zimbabweans between the ages of 15 and 49 infected with HIV dropped from 24.6 percent to 20.1 percent in the last two years.

However, UNAIDS epidemiologist Peter Ghys has cautioned that "there is still a lot of prevention work to be done".

The latest review observed that a change in sexual behaviour had helped reduce HIV prevalence and incidence in Zimbabwe, "in particular, a substantial increase in condom use with non-regular partners and an increase in faithfulness have contributed to the decline".

Ghys said there was also concern over the impact on thousands of Zimbabweans displaced by the government's clean-up campaign, Operation Murambatsvina, which had disrupted HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. The government's controversial campaign has left more than 700,000 people homeless.

Explaining the reasons for the apparent decline in HIV prevalence, Ghys pointed out that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zimbabwe was 'old' compared to most other countries in the region, possibly dating back to the mid-1980s. "It [Zimbabwe] has had a longer period of time to respond to the crisis, as compared to South Africa, where the epidemic began in the 1990s."

Northern African countries like Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the epidemic began in the early 1980s, have also recorded a significant decline in HIV incidence.

Ghys said the review's findings indicated that HIV/AIDS prevention programmes directed at changing sexual behaviour were responsible for the lower number of new cases.

Local research in the eastern province of Manicaland showed that young Zimbabweans were delaying becoming sexually active, promiscuity was on the decline and women with frequently changing partners were increasingly using condoms.

The Manicaland studies, conducted in a phased general population survey, showed that between 1998 and 2000, and 2001 and 2003, HIV prevalence declined from 4.9 percent to 2.7 percent in males aged 17 to 24 years, and from 15.9 percent to 7.9 percent in females in the age group 15 to 24 years.

According to Ghys, the Zimbabwean government's decision to decentralise its HIV/AIDS prevention programme had also proven to be an effective strategy in curbing HIV incidence. "Very early in the epidemic the government was charging an AIDS levy, which helped fund HIV prevention programmes at the district level."

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