25 February 2016

South Africa: SABC Got It Wrong - 88 Percent of South Africa's Police Members Not HIV+

Could "about 88%" of South Africa's police force be HIV+, as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) recently reported? Africa Check inspected the evidence.

Under the headline "Police reveals shocking HIV infection stats" the South African Broadcasting Corporation recently said that "[a]bout 88% of active staff" in the country's police service are HIV+.

The SABC was reporting on a speech by deputy police minister Maggie Sotyu to parliament's police portfolio committee last week.

"The 88% is made up of active personnel, clerks, public services act members and sweepers," the SABC added.

Many readers contacted Africa Check in disbelief. "This number can surely not be right," tweeted Ricardo Mackenzie, a member of Western Cape provincial parliament, to which the province's premier Helen Zille replied: "A job for @AfricaCheck."

'Information is confidential'

The South African Police Service (SAPS) had 193,692 members at last count - 150,950 police officials and 42,742 support staff (called public service act members).

If 88% of the police service were HIV+, that would mean 170,449 members carry the virus. And if true, the HIV rate for this group would be 8 times the national prevalence rate of 11.2%.

Africa Check first contacted the deputy minister's office who referred us to the Police Medical Scheme (Polmed). Spokesman Marlene Eloff said she couldn't provide information on the total number of Polmed members or confirm how many were on the HIV programme, saying: "This information is confidential".

27,246 people on HIV programme

In the meantime, the deputy minister's spokesman, Nomsa Hani, sent us the slides on which her speech was based.

This showed that 27,246 people, comprising of police officials and their dependents, were enrolled in Polmed's HIV programme in the 2014/15 financial year. More than two-thirds (18,996) of them were main members of the scheme and therefore presumably police officials.

Of the 27,246 police officials and their dependents enrolled in the programme, 88% were receiving antiretroviral treatment (ART), with 10% "too early to treat" and 2% defaulters.

Conclusion: 88% of SA's police are not HIV+

The SABC mistakenly reported that "about 88%" of South Africa's police officials are HIV+. This number referred to the share of people enrolled in the police medical scheme's HIV programme who were receiving antiretroviral treatment in 2014/15.

If we only count the main members, this would mean that at least 9.8% of the entire police service were HIV+. However, as some police members may be medical scheme beneficiaries or not even know that they carry the virus, this is simply a starting point. A nationally representative survey is needed.

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