Business Day, 04 December 2002, Confronting the challenge of HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is one of the most pressing challenges confronting SA and the rest of the African continent, and accurate information is a crucial tool to address the pandemic.

Dr Olive Shisana, executive director of social aspects of HIV/AIDS and health at the HSRC, says the council has completed a national survey on HIV/AIDS prevalence and behaviour risk commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

"The study will provide SA with its first empirical estimate of the extent of the epidemic. The survey has tested for prevalence in a rigorous national sample across all the provinces of SA, covering urban and rural areas.

"We included all race groups, various age groups, and reached informal settlements and farms as well as the formal urban areas."

People were interviewed with a questionnaire and at the same time saliva samples were taken to test for HIV status. The samples were analysed in three different laboratories around the country.

The respondents and their results were linked by barcodes so that the process was anonymous.

"The study was undertaken by the HSRC because there has not been the comprehensive information required to carry out effective planning. In particular, information has been lacking with regard to the link between individuals' behaviour and their HIV/AIDS status.

"We wanted to see how South Africans are doing in terms of behaviour how our perceptions of risk relate to real risk."

She says an important goal of the study is to produce representative figures about the prevalence of the disease in SA. While data derived from antenatal studies shows HIV/AIDS incidence among pregnant women attending public clinics, and indicates trends, it does not cover men or all race and age groups.

"By comparing data from all the studies with the information gathered in our nationwide sample, we shall have a much better picture of the HIV/AIDS situation in SA," Shisana says.

She says this information is essential for government and other organisations so that they can target interventions and focus their resources.

A n aspect of the study is the effectiveness of the media being used to communicate HIV/AIDS information to the public.

"We wanted to find out how the different types of mass media are influencing everyday behaviour in dealing with the risk."

The HSRC is to begin a threecountry study funded by a $5m grant from the WK Kellogg Foundation.

"The study focuses on multiple sites in Botswana, Zimbabwe and SA. The idea is to examine different types of interventions and see how effective they are in mitigating the effect of HIV/AIDS on orphans and vulnerable children, as well as families with HIV/AIDS," Shisana says.

The project is being carried out in collaboration with a number of agencies that implement AIDS programmes, such as the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund in SA, the Masiela Trust in Botswana and the Child Survival Project in Zimbabwe. It is one of the activities of Sahara (social aspects of HIV/AIDS research alliance) through which the HSRC is seeking to enhance cooperation among research and implementing agencies in the region, addressing the prevention, effect and care of the pandemic.

Another Sahara activity is a web portal, in association with the Medical Research Council, to share AIDS-related research and documentation.