Health-e, 22 November 2002, Whites feel less at risk of AIDS

White South Africans know less and worry less about HIV/AIDS than other race groups, while young people are more likely to accept having sex in exchange for money.

These are some of the results of a baseline study of 2 500 people nationwide commissioned by the Department of Health to inform its new communication campaign, Khomanani (Caring together).

"White respondents were less likely to perceive themselves, their peers or partners as being ‘at risk’ of contracting HIV/AIDS, and therefore may take less interest in the issue," according to the report, which was released in Pretoria on Friday ( 22/11/02 ).

"This highlights the dangers of HIV/AIDS being labelled as a problem affecting particular groups of people and the imperative need to develop a range of messages which appeal to different audiences," says the report.

There has been a huge increase in African and coloured respondents who see themselves and their partners at risk of getting the disease. Two years ago, a Soul City survey found that 47% of these respondents believed they were at risk, while 45% believed their partners to be at risk. This year, the figures have jumped to 67% and 63% respectively.

In contrast, only 35% of white respondents believed they were at risk and 30% believed their partners were at risk.

Risk perception is important, as researchers in countries such as Uganda have found that people only began to change their risky sexual behaviour once they saw themselves to be at risk. It also indicates that HIV/AIDS is probably becoming more visible in communities.

Urban African citizens from Gauteng were most likely (43%) to say they knew someone with HIV/AIDS, followed by the Western Cape (39%) and North West (37%).

Despite the fact that the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is highest in KwaZulu-Natal, with one in three pregnant women testing HIV positive, only 25% of respondents said they knew someone affected by HIV/AIDS. This indicates that stigma and denial is still very high in KwaZulu-Natal.

The highest rate of HIV infection is in young people, which is why they are a particular target group for Khomanani.

The good news is that condom use was highest amongst the 15 to 19-year-olds, with 62% reporting having used a condom the last time they had sex.

However, young people were less likely to accept the merits of delaying the age at which they started to have sex. In addition, young men were most likely to agree that "men have the right to have sex with their girlfriends if they spend money on them or buy them gifts".

Rural respondents reported having sex earlier than those in urban areas, while men had their first sexual experience about a year before women. The average age of first sex was 17.

Urban women were the least prejudiced against people with HIV/AIDS. Goodwill was abundant, however, with a massive 70% of people saying that they would be prepared to help someone who was HIV positive.

"There was a clear racial pattern in responses to whether people would be prepared to publicly support people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWA)," said the report. "Approximately half of white respondents would consider supporting PLWA compared with two-thirds of respondents from other race groups. Respondents with personal knowledge of people affected by HIV/AIDS were more likely to consider PLWA than those who did not know people who were effected."