HIV/Aids is a demographic time bomb; the potential damage it can cause to South Africa, its society and economy, is incalculable.
Statistics vary but it is conservatively estimated that between 4.5 and 4.8 million South Africans (10% of the population) are infected with HIV/Aids. What does this figure mean in real terms?
- The life expectancy of the average South African has already dropped from 67 to 57 as a result of the HIV/Aids epidemic.
- 20% of all sexually active girls between the ages of 16 and 18 are infected with HIV/Aids.
- 32% of all deaths among pregnant mothers are caused by Aids.
- By 2001, 10% of the child population – some 662,000 youngsters - had lost one or both parents to HIV/Aids.
- Fifty-five teachers a month are dying of Aids in Kwazulu-Natal. The average age at the time of death was 36. The rate of infection for teachers nationally is 40%.
HIV/Aids is eating away the very foundations of South African society. What makes a successful country - stable families, healthy children, an educated work force - are all under threat. As teachers and pupils fall sick, school absences will increase. As workers become sick, industries will become less productive and the economy will fail to grow.
There is also the human tragedy. The majority of HIV/Aids sufferers are poor, black and live in environments dominated by poor health and poverty.
If the present rate of infection continues:
- more than half of all 15 year old boys in South Africa today will not live to celebrate their 60th birthday.
- more than a quarter of the entire labour force of South Africa will be affected by 2006. The population of the country will drop from 60 million to 50 million.
- Nearly five million children will be orphaned by 2016. That represents more than 10% of the population.
But there is hope. Countries like Uganda have shown that HIV/Aids can be driven back by education, support and counselling, nutrition and anti-retrovirals (ARVs). People can overcome HIV infection to become happy and functioning citizens. Many South African employers, aware of the value of a skilled and healthy work force, are distributing free ARVs to HIV-positive employees. It does seem that the Government is now committed to a comprehensive programme to combat HIV/Aids, not only through the rolling out of ARVs but also through imaginative and successful projects like Home Based Care and Soul City, a popular soap opera which spreads messages about safe sex, nutrition and medical treatment.