The big drop in the numbers of people infected with HIV in Zimbabwe is because of mass social change, driven by fear of infection, according to an international study reported in the journal PLoS Medicine.
Zimbabwe’s epidemic was one of the biggest in the world until the number of people infected with HIV in Zimbabwe almost halved, from 29% to 16%, between 1997 and 2007. Remarkably, this occurred against a background of massive social, political, and economic disruption in the country.
Today’s findings strongly show that people in Zimbabwe have primarily been motivated to change their sexual behaviour because of improved public awareness of AIDS deaths and a subsequent fear of contracting the virus.
Professor Simon Gregson, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, and senior investigator on the study, said: “Given the continuing, and worrying, trend for high HIV/AIDS infection rates in many sub-Saharan African countries, we felt it was important to understand why the disease has taken a such a dramatic downturn in Zimbabwe. Very few other countries around the world have seen reductions in HIV infection, and of all African nations, Zimbabwe was thought least likely to see such a turnaround. This is why there was such an urgent need to understand its direct and underlying causes.”
The scientists say a change in peoples’ attitudes towards their numbers of partners was aided by HIV/AIDS prevention programs organised by the National AIDS Council through the mass media and church-based, workplace-based, and other interpersonal communication activities.
Other underlying factors found to distinguish Zimbabwe from neighbouring countries, and which may have contributed to the changes in behaviour, included its well-educated population and strong traditions of marriage.
The results of this study have been extensively and openly debated at the national meeting in Zimbabwe, where attendees reached a ‘clear consensus’ about the legitimacy of the findings. The researchers hope that, by making the data available more widely, the conclusions of the study can now be judged by other policy makers in the international community and that a clear message can be agreed about the factors driving a decline in HIV/AIDS.
The United Nations HIV-AIDS Program (UNAIDS) and the Zimbabwean Ministry for Health and Child Welfare sponsored this study, along with funding from the Wellcome Trust.
Source: Imperial College London, UK