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SAF Government Accused Of Undermining Program To Help Rape Victims Avoid HIV - 2004-03-04

Human Rights Watch says the South African government has undermined its own program to help rape victims avoid H-I-V infection. A local study reveals a massive increase in mortality rates among young adults since 1998 that is apparently related to AIDS.

Human Rights Watch says health workers and police officers have not been adequately trained and, as a result, are not telling rape survivors where and how to get drugs that have been shown to prevent H-I-V infections in many cases. To be effective, the course of drugs, known as anti-retrovirals, must begin within three days of possible exposure to H-I-V, the virus that causes AIDS.

More than five-million South Africans have H-I-V. That is one of every 11 people. In addition, the country has a high incidence of violent rape. Human Rights Watch's Rebecca Schleifer says this combination, coupled with lapses in the government's prevention program, has deadly consequences for rape victims.

In a separate study, to be published next month, South Africa's independent Medical Research Council has found that the mortality rate among 20-to-49-year-olds in the country increased by 44-percent in the past five years.

Researcher Debbie Bradshaw says she and her fellow researchers have no hesitation in attributing the increase to AIDS.

"We are just alarmed by this massive rise in the number of adult deaths, and it would be our interpretation that this is largely attributed to H-I-V, because of the very specific age pattern that it follows."

Dr. Bradshaw says the pattern of deaths correlates with the rapid increase in the H-I-V infection rate in South Africa from the early 1990s to its peak in 1998. She says it is essential that the government's plan to combat the disease be implemented as quickly as possible.

"Our government has a comprehensive plan for prevention and treatment, and we hope this data will renew the resolve to implement this plan. Although treatment does not prevent death from AIDS, it does delay death, and so it should slow down the mortality increase."

The government says it is close to implementing its plan, that training in 100 facilities has been completed and that tenders for drugs have been issued. But AIDS activists say there continue to be unnecessary delays and that the minister of health continues to issue confusing statements about treatment of H-I-V.