for National Geographic News
The southern African nation of Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. But efforts to control the epidemic may finally be bearing fruit.
An international team of AIDS researchers has found that HIV infection rates in the eastern province of Manicaland declined from 23 percent in 1998 to 20.5 percent in 2003, a reduction of nearly 11 percent.
The decline appears to be linked to increasing levels of safe sex, says study author Simon Gregson of Imperial College London.
Most important, researchers say, is the substantial decrease in casual sex partners reported by Manicaland residents.
This, combined with increased abstinence by teenagers, may be contributing to the region's HIV decline.
The study appears in today's issue of the journal Science.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, sub-Saharan Africa is home to about 62 percent of the estimated 10 million people age 15 to 24 living with HIV worldwide. Zimbabwe alone has about 1.8 million infected individuals.
Between 1998 and 2000 Gregson's team contacted nearly 10,000 people in Zimbabwe. The researchers administered HIV tests and asked about sexual behaviors.
Three years later the team repeated the survey, contacting as many of the original participants as they could locate.
Not only had the overall rate of infection come down, they found, but the biggest drop occurred in the youngest age groups.
The researchers say that's important with a disease like AIDS, because there is no cure. Positive changes will first show up when the current cadre of young people, just moving into their sexually active years, show lower infection rates than their predecessors.
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