HIV infection among pregnant women in southern Africa highest in region and continues to grow

Young women at least three times more likely to be HIV-positive than men of the same age

Abuja – HIV prevalence rates among young people, especially women, in most of the southern African countries are alarmingly high, at rates exceeding 25%. To make a dent at halting the disease, gender and age differences need to be key elements in HIV/AIDS intervention programme design, emphasized Teguest Guerma, Associate Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) HIV/AIDS Department.

By the end of 2005 close to two-thirds of all people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide were living in Africa. Some 25.8 million people in the region are living with HIV/AIDS, which means seven out of 100 adults aged 15–49 years are HIV-infected. An estimated 4.7 million children and adults need antiretroviral drugs in sub-Saharan Africa while only a little over 500 000 people were receiving them in June 2005. The epidemic in countries like Mozambique and South Africa continue to worsen. In Swaziland HIV prevalence among pregnant women is alarmingly high, with over 40% of the women infected.

"Women are most vulnerable. Young women aged 15–24 years are at least three times more likely to be HIV-positive than men of the same age. In Botswana and Swaziland more than one out of three young pregnant women aged 15–24 years is HIV-infected. The HIV situation in southern Africa, especially among young people, deserves especially designed programmes that take into account these fundamental issues to tackle the problem," stressed Guerma.

Speaking on the state of the epidemic in Africa today at the 14th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in Abuja, Nigeria, Guerma presented these findings from the latest UNAIDS/WHO AIDS Epidemic Update 2005 report and the WHO report, HIV/AIDS epidemiological surveillance update for the WHO African Region 2005. The latter report provides a detailed review of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and surveillance practices in the 46 countries of the WHO African region and gives the most recent update of the HIV/AIDS situation in this part of the world.

There are both marked diversity and wide variations in HIV prevalence levels and trends within and between countries and in the subregions, between rural and urban populations.

While Africa remains the region most affected by HIV/AIDS, there is encouraging news that more countries are observing a decline in HIV prevalence among pregnant women attending antenatal clinics (ANC). Countries such as Burkina Faso, Burundi, Kenya and Zimbabwe have joined the ranks of Uganda, where HIV prevalence among pregnant women declined in the early to mid-1990s. There are also some positive signs of modest declining HIV trends in cities like Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) and Lilongwe (Malawi).

However, the overall picture remains grim.

  • Countries in southern Africa, with the exception of Angola, have the highest HIV prevalence rates among ANC attendees aged 15 to 24 years, varying from 17.4% to 39.4%.
  • Although countries in eastern Africa have registered declining HIV prevalence trends, their HIV prevalence rates are still very high, at around 7 %.
  • Most countries in western Africa continue to have levels of HIV prevalence rates below 5% and with stable HIV prevalence trends. However, in some countries such as Senegal, with low HIV prevalence, a recent increase in HIV prevalence among ANC attendees has been reported, especially among women 15 to 24 years of age.
  • In central Africa, HIV prevalence data remain limited, making it impossible to monitor trends in most of the countries. However, available data in some countries in this subregion do show stable trends.

"The declining HIV prevalence rates in some areas, although modest, are encouraging. It shows that, with coordinated and sustained efforts in HIV prevention and treatment, the HIV/AIDS epidemic can be reversed," said Guerma.

Related information

For more information, please contact:

Anne Winter
Abuja (December 2-6)
+41 79 440 6011