Are 74% of African girls aged 15 to 24 HIV+? Not even close

Despite significant improvements in HIV prevention, new infections continue to occur among young people. But are nearly three-quarters of African women between 15 and 24 infected by the virus?

The scourge of HIV and AIDS across  Africa remains high on the list of governments’ priorities, especially as it affects the most economically productive segment of their populations.

The headline “74% of African girls aged 15-24 are HIV+” on Zimbabwe Today, an online content aggregator, was therefore sure to tap into a vein of concern and fear regarding the epidemic’s impact on African populations.

But while the headline stated that 74% of  African girls are HIV+ a different statistic appeared in the article.

A few paragraphs down it said that “adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa… now make up 74% of new HIV infections in the 15 to 24 age group”.

So which is which?

The origin of the claim – UNAIDS & African Union

zimtodayZimbabwe Today links to the Inter Press Service news agency as the source of the article. Here the article has a different headline (“Plan for Poorer Countries to Fund HIV Response Raises Concerns”).

Writer Lyndal Rowlands cited UNAIDS as the source for the statistics that in sub-Saharan Africa adolescent girls make up 74% of new HIV infections in the 15 to 24 age group.

The link is broken but inspecting the URL shows that Rowland was referring to a 2015 report by UNAIDS and the African Union called “Empower young women and adolescent girls: Fast-track the end of the AIDS epidemic in Africa”.

The first pull-out figure on page 8 contains the statistic that in 2013, 74% of new HIV infections among people between 15 and 24 in Africa occurred in adolescent girls.

Therefore saying that “74% of African girls aged 15 to 24 are HIV+”, as Zimbabwe Today did, is “grossly misrepresenting the facts, and simply wrong”, chief of communications at the African services unit of the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), Patsy Nakell, told Africa Check.

Do young African women make up 74% of new HIV infections?

However, it is unclear how the figure of 74% cited by the UNAIDS/African Union report was itself derived. The source listed in the bibliography states “UNAIDS 2013 HIV Estimates”.

The South African office of UNAIDS referred us to the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) but their data is specific to South Africa. The international office of UNAIDS did not respond to further queries.

Unicef’s HIV specialist, Paul Nary, referred us to the UNAIDS Gap Report, which sought to analyse infection rates in a range of vulnerable populations affected by HIV. The data was typically collected from antenatal clinics and through national population survey data, Nary explained.

The report does not contain data on the infection rate of adolescent girls, but a graph shows that in 2013 in sub-Saharan Africa roughly 150,000 new infections occurred in young men aged 15 to 24, with roughly double that in young women in that age group. This would mean about two-thirds of new infections in this age group affected women.

So what proportion of African women aged 15 to 24 are HIV+?

US television talkshow queen Oprah Winfrey takes the first HIV test at her South African school for disadvantaged girls outside Johannesburg in January 2007. Photo: AFP
US television talkshow queen Oprah Winfrey takes the first HIV test at her South African school for disadvantaged girls outside Johannesburg in January 2007. Photo: AFP

If 74% of African girls are not HIV+, what is the rate of prevalence then? The latest data, from the 2013 UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic, shows that in 2012 in sub-Saharan Africa an estimated 2.5% of women between 15 and 24 and 1.2% of men in this age group were living with HIV.

Each country submits their national data to UNAIDS and this is then supplemented by computer modelling to produce a low, middle and high estimate. For young women, the estimate of 2.5% ranged from 2.3% to 3% and for young men from 0.9% to 1.6%.

However, prevalence varied widely across the region, with 20% of women in Swaziland in this age group estimated to be HIV+, followed by South Africa (13.9%) and Lesotho (10.7%). The corresponding figures for young men in these countries were far lower, at 10.3%, 3.9% and 5.8% respectively.

On the other side of the scale, Cape Verde’s prevalence was less than 0.1% and that of Liberia and Niger 01.% North Africa was not listed separately but bundled with the Middle East.

What is clear from the available data is that women in sub-Saharan Africa, but especially southern and eastern African countries, are disproportionately impacted by HIV, Unicef’s Nakell told Africa Check.

Conclusion: No, 74% of adolescent girls in Africa are not HIV+ but they remain disproportionately affected

Zimbabwe Today’s headline about the prevalence of HIV among young women in Africa is grossly incorrect, according to Unicef and UNAIDS evidence. The latest UNAIDS data shows that 2.5% of women aged between 15 and 24 in sub-Saharan Africa were estimated to be HIV+.

The overall figure masks huge differences in prevalence, though. Less than 0.1% of Cape Verdean young women are thought to be HIV+ but in Swaziland, the figure reaches 20%.

The data also shows that HIV disproportionately affects young women. In a country such as South Africa, more than one in ten women between 15 and 24 are estimated to be HIV+ while the figure for young men is only about four in a 100.

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