The HIV/AIDS infection rate in South Sudan has dropped from 3.1 percent in 2010 to 2.7 percent last year, United Nations data show, but success in fighting the disease could be undone by low levels of testing and treatment, officials said on World AIDS Day.
“We have 16,000 new infections yearly so we have to really do something," UNAIDS Country Coordinator Medhin Tsehaiu said, noting that South Sudan is surrounded by countries with much higher HIV/AIDS infection rates than it has: prevalence in Uganda is 7.2 percent and in Kenya, 6.1 percent, according to U.N. figures.
Dr. Medhin said that of the estimated 150,000 HIV/AIDS patients in the country, only six percent are on anti-retroviral therapy. Meanwhile, 13,000 people have died of AIDS-related illnesses in the past year, she said.
Dr. Esterina Novelo Nyilok, chair of South Sudan's HIV/AIDS Commission, said part of what prevents people from being tested for HIV, and stops people living with HIV/AIDS from seeking treatment, is the stigma that is attached to the disease.
"Why our people are not coming is because of issues of fear, issues of discrimination, which is rampant in this country," she said.
"We have really to break that cycle. HIV is a problem but it is the responsibility of each of us to make sure that we know our status."
Ahead of World AIDS Day, which has been marked every December 1 since 1988, South Sudan introduced free HIV counseling and testing centers in major towns around the country. Novelo said the centers are aimed at making people more comfortable accessing HIV/AIDS-related services, and getting tested.
In Bentiu, capital of Unity state, more than 2,000 people showed to get tested for HIV at three free testing centers which opened on Saturday.
The centers will stay open for the rest of the month and, in a speech to mark World AIDS Day, Unity state assembly speaker, James Nguany Chakuoth, encouraged more people to drop in and be tested.
“The earlier you know your status, the faster you get healthy and live long," he said.
published earlier this year bears him out. In the study, published in AIDS, the journal of the International AIDS Society, researchers found that HIV-infected patients whose disease is well-controlled by modern treatment, had roughly the same mortality rate during the time covered by the study as people not infected with HIV, which causes AIDS.