The South African government on Thursday linked a sharp increase in the death rate to the country's staggering Aids epidemic.
The government said the death rate for women aged 20 to 39 had more than tripled between 1997 and 2004 and had more than doubled for men aged 30 to 44. It noted those age groups had the highest incidence of death from Aids.
"Large increases in the death rates of women in their 20s and 30s since the late 1990s are thought to result mainly from HIV," the government statistical office said in its report. It gave no estimate for the increase in HIV deaths and said many Aids deaths were attributed to other causes.
It said levels of HIV infection have risen rapidly, that the average time from becoming infected to death was eight to 10 years and that it was likely that "HIV deaths will continue to increase in South Africa for some years."
Rise in HIV-positive mothers
The percentage of pregnant woman who are HIV-positive had risen from 15 in 1990 to 17% in 1997 and to 30% by 2004, the last year covered by the report.
Overall, the government has estimated more than 5.5 million South Africans are infected with HIV, a number second only to India and one that amounts to about an eighth of estimated cases worldwide. On average, more than 900 people die of the disease in South Africa each day.
South Africa's government has come under mounting international criticism because of its handling of its Aids epidemic. President Thabo Mbeki once questioned the link between HIV and Aids, and both he and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have doubted the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs used to treat Aids.
More than 80 international Aids scientists, including an American Nobel laureate and one of the co-discoverers of the virus that causes Aids, released a letter to Mbeki on Wednesday that called South Africa's Aids policies inefficient and immoral and urged the president to fire his health minister.
Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for Aids in Africa, delivered a scathing attack on South Africa at the International Aids conference in Toronto last month, saying the government was "still obtuse, dilatory and negligent" about providing treatment.
"It is the only country in Africa whose government continues to promote theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned a compassionate state," he said.
South Africa called Lewis' comments "unacceptable" and claimed to have the largest HIV treatment programme in the world. It said it was treating 140 000 people in treatment programmes, a figure less than half of the 380 000 target it set in 2003. The Aids scientists said about 500 000 South Africans now need Aids drugs to survive.
In its report, the government said the increase in the country's death rates could not be attributed only to Aids, but also to nutritional deficiencies and other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.
A bleak report
The increase in the death rate for almost every group in the study was particularly disturbing, because the worldwide trend is for the rates to decline over the period.
According to the report, the death rate for women aged 20-24 increased from 331 in 1997 to 1 085 in 2004 per 100 000; for women aged 25-29 from 452 in 1997 to 1 985 in 2004; for women aged 30-34 from 489 in 1997 to 2 267 in 2004; and for women aged 35-39 from 526 in 1997 to 1 890 in 2004. For men aged 30-34, it increased from 817 per 100 000 in 1997 to 2,118 in 2004; for men aged 35-39 it rose from 916 in 1997 to 2 498 in 2004; and for men 40-44 it climbed from 1 136 in 1997 to 2 765 in 2004.
"South Africa is a member of a select, but undesirable, group of countries in which life expectancy at birth declined by 4 years or more between 1990 and 2001," the government said. It said all the countries are either in Africa or part of the former Soviet Union.
The only good news was that deaths due to murder, suicide and accidents had changed little and that the number of killings had actually declined since the late 1990s. But the government said South Africa probably still has "the second highest homicide rate in the world, trailing only Colombia." -AP