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S.Africa’s HIV infections fall to 5.4 million: government

The number of people living with HIV in South Africa has dropped slightly to 5.38 million, and the number of AIDS deaths is finally starting to fall, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said Thursday.

South Africa has more HIV infections than any country in the world, previously estimated at 5.6 million by the United Nations in its global report on HIV in 2009, released late last year.

“South Africa has invested a large amount of resources into its HIV response,” Motlanthe said in a written reply to a question from parliament, where lawmakers had asked for an update on the success of the anti-AIDS fight.

“The number of deaths due to HIV-related causes is beginning to show a decline due to the intensification of anti-retroviral treatment.”

He said government statistics place South Africa’s HIV infection rate at 10.6 percent of the overall population of 50 million people, with 16.6 percent of 15- to 29-year-olds infected.

Among pregnant women, the infection rate stands at just below 30 percent, Motlanthe said. But he added that transmission of the infection from expecting mothers to their babies has fallen from 10 percent to 3.5 percent in the last three years.

Motlanthe said the government is still struggling to reduce the number of new infections.

“The rate of new infections continues to outpace our prevention efforts, and thus prevention programmes will be prioritised in the new national strategic plan which is being developed for the term 2012 to 2016,” he said.

Motlanthe’s response came several weeks after the end of a massive testing campaign that reached nearly 14 million people, two million of whom tested positive.

It also came on the heels of an announcement by the government that it will provide potentially life-saving anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs to all HIV patients whose CD4 count, a measure of white blood cells, falls below 350 cells per microlitre.

Previously the drugs were only handed out when the count hit 200 cells per microlitre, but studies have found earlier treatment can save people’s lives.

South Africa has the largest ARV drug programme in the world, with some 1.3 million people receiving treatment.