14 August 2002

South Africa: Teenage Sex Habits May Be Changing

Johannesburg — Awareness campaign may be working

There is tentative evidence that the high-risk sexual behaviour of teenagers, which has been driving SA's high rate of HIV infection, is changing as a result of awareness campaigns, LoveLife CEO David Harrison said yesterday.

The LoveLife campaign has been highly controversial, with some advertisements forced off television screens, and Christian political parties claiming that its awareness campaigns promoted promiscuity rather than behavioural changes.

Briefing Parliament's health committee on LoveLife's activities, Harrison said the epidemic was being sustained by new infections among young people in the 12 to 17 years age group.

The vast majority of new infections occur in the 15 to 25 years old group with females being by far the hardest hit.

He told the committee that sexually active young South Africans also reported a high number of sexual partners, and this, coupled with "erratic condom use", created a profile of high risk for HIV infection.

"It is important to note that the rate of infection is so high that it will continue to sustain the epidemic above 20% (of the population) unless we starve it of its oxygen," Harrison said. "And that means stopping infections among young people."

It had been found that the average age for first time full penetrative sex in SA was 17 years, while by 16 50% had had sex. In some cases those engaging in full sex were as young as 12 with many young girls being coerced.

Harrison said that the profile of the high-risk group and its size meant that this alone gave room for hope because only a moderate shift in behaviour would have a major effect on reducing infection rates. He said that this could have been the case in Uganda, which recently showed a sudden shrinkage of infection in the highrisk pool.

He said care had to be taken in the interpretation of research results because of over-attribution and over-reporting of safe sexual behaviour, "but even if we halve the estimates there is significant evidence of something starting to happen among young South Africans and changing their sexual behaviour".

Harrison said that there was evidence that LoveLife's "love them enough to talk about sex" campaign was succeeding.

He said that there was a strong correlation between open parental discussion on sex and safe sex with a lower reported risk behaviour by young people.

His report said "the first goal of LoveLife is to get all South Africans and particularly 12- to 17-year olds talking more openly about sex, sexuality and the HIV epidemic".

This goal derived from international experience, which has found that open communication about sex, and early sex education is essential in delaying the onset of adolescent sexual activity, reducing teenage pregnancy, increasing condom usage and reducing HIV/AIDS infections and other sexually transmitted diseases, he said.

LoveLife has come under attack for its talk about sex programme to the extent that an advertisement involving Pieter Dirk Uys had been taken off television.

Harrison told African Christian Democratic Party MP Cheryllyn Dudley that LoveLife in no way promoted various forms of sexual behaviour but rather pointed out the risks.

He also said that there was no international evidence to show that the promotion of condom use translated into increased promiscuity.

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