South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi at AIDS 2012. (De Capua)
South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi at AIDS 2012. (De Capua)

A new survey shows that South African HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns have been a big success. There’s more testing, condom use and male circumcision. The findings were released Tuesday at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington.

South Africa has been one of the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. Some 5.2 million people were believed HIV positive in 2008. That was more than 10-and-a-half-percent of the population.

The government and its partners began launching media campaigns to raise awareness about how HIV is transmitted and how infection can be prevented. The 3rd South African National  HIV Communication Survey shows “substantial increases in behaviors that reduce the risk of infection.”

Lusanda Mahlasela, Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins
Lusanda Mahlasela, Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Health & Education in South Africa. (De Capua)

“Our findings indicate that well over 17.4 million South Africans have been tested for HIV -- 10.6 million of these South Africans were tested in the past 12 months,” said Lusanda Mahlasela, deputy director at Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa.

She described that as a huge achievement. “The more people are exposed to HIV communication programs, the more likely they are to get tested,” she said.

The survey also looked at the issue of stigma. People who were tested for HIV were asked whether they were willing to publicly disclose their HIV status.

“We were quite surprised,” she said, “that well over 86 percent of people were willing to reveal their HIV status. Of the people that revealed their HIV status, 11.2 percent said that they were HIV positive.”

Mahlasela said more than half of South African men have been circumcised, equally distributed between medical and traditional circumcision methods.

“Men, whether they are circumcised or uncircumcised, have similar levels of condom use. And again the majority of people – 85 percent – know that a man who is circumcised still needs to use condoms,” she said.

South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is pleased with the survey’s findings.

He said, “The more we see these research findings, the more we have hope. It looks more likely that we can have an AIDS-free generation.”

In 1994, South Africa’s public health system distributed only six million condoms. The survey showed a dramatic increase by 2012.

“We have distributed 450 million condoms. And I’m happy that the survey found that they are indeed being used. And especially significant, yes, (laughter and applause), especially significant is the use of condoms at first sex. I think this is extremely important,” he said.

Male circumcision has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection. But there’s been a debate in South Africa as to whether an increase in men getting circumcised would lead to a decrease in condom use. The health minister said that’s not the case.

Dr. Motsoaledi added that men must take an education program before being circumcised.

“We just don’t line up men and start snipping, snipping, snipping, snipping. There is a clear HIV counseling and testing campaign. I’ve attended some of them. Especially in the province of KwaZulu-Natal where there were no traditional circumcisions for more than 200 years. When we approached the king of the Zulus and spoke to him, he called all the chiefs and announced to them that they are now dropping their tradition of 200 years of not circumcising. They are going to start to circumcise,” he said.

The National HIV Communication Survey was conducted across all nine South African provinces between February and May of this year. It was conducted jointly by Johns Hopkins, LoveLife and Soul City with funding from PEPFAR through USAID.