Updated 11 June 2015

How South Africans put themselves at risk of HIV

The sexual behaviours of South Africans and their oblivion to HIV are putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus. We look at 5 ways people put themselves at risk.


Recent statistics revealed that HIV has become the third-leading cause of death in South Africa, a statistic that has continued to increase since 2011. Even more concerning is that HIV is the top killer in the Western Cape, with the virus accounting for a shocking of 12% of deaths in the region.

The chairperson of the South African National Aids Conference, Dr Nono Simelela, says despite the progress made in fighting HIV-Aids, new infections among young women and girls are higher than expected. She made the remark ahead of the South African Aids Conference in Durban, which is running from 9 to 12 June 2015 at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Convention Centre in Durban.

The New Age reports that Statistics South Africa’s (Stats SA) 2013 mortality and causes of death figures show that HIV has moved from being ranked sixth in 2012 to being ranked third in 2013.
Of the 458 933 deaths registered at the department of home affairs in 2013 and processed by Stats SA, 5.1% were due to HIV, an increase from the 3.9% in 2012.
The statistics also show that the change in the ranking of HIV was driven by increases in the number of deaths due to the infection reported by three provinces: Western and Northern Cape and this province. The groups 15–44 and 45–64 showed increasing HIV deaths.

Read: What's killing people in the Western Cape?

Health24 hosts an expert forum which allows readers to ask Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl, an HIV expert working in the Western Cape, personal questions related to HIV. We zoomed in on these discussions to find out why the HIV stats for the country are so high, and to get an idea of what South Africans are doing wrong.

The questions readers post on Health24's HIV forum suggest that many South Africans are ill-informed about the spread of the virus, or that they continue to engage in risky sexual behaviour despite being aware of the associated health hazards.

This is how South Africans put themselves at risk:

1. Engaging in unprotected sexual activity with someone who is HIV positive, or with someone you suspect might have HIV.

Read user questions: Unprotected vaginal sex and Do I have HIV?

2. Not wanting to get tested because you fear you might be HIV positive.

Read: Scared of having HIV

3. Considering certain groups of people to be more likely to be HIV+ than others – and putting themselves at risk by sleeping with what they regard as the “safe group”. 

Read: Are some genes more likely to contract HIV than others?

4. Not disclosing your status to your partner.

This woman writes: How do I tell him I'm HIV positive without losing him?

5. Having unprotected sex with your partner because you are in a committed relationship, but not knowing their status. 

Read the question: I might have been exposed to HIV

Dr van Zyl says, "It is always worrying when people have blind spots, as HIV affects everyone. This is why everyone must test for HIV, know their status and practise safe sex."

She says that the matter of disclosing one's status to an HIV negative partner will always be a difficult as it comes with the risk of rejection. This is a risk, especially for couples who are in an established relationship, and is a good reason why people need to test for HIV before starting a sexual relationship. "That is the best thing to do," she says. 

Van Zyl again stresses the importance of using condoms as protection against contracting HIV. "Condom use, male or female, should become a non-negotiable part of any sexual relationship. Both partners need to speak about this and reach a pact," she says.

To ask Dr van Zyl a question, you can post a question here.

Read more:

Male circumcision can provide HIV-negative heterosexual men with up to 60% protection against HIV infection
HIV drugs more effective when taken right after diagnosis
'My mother made me sleep with men for money and food'


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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