Media get it wrong on SA schoolgirls’ HIV statistics

According to Minister of Health Aaron Motsoeldi there are no statistics available on national figures of HIV prevelance among young girls.

Last week the Mail & Guardian used a South African Press Association (Sapa) article on its site incorrectly stating that 28% of South Africa's schoolgirls were infected by HIV, compared with 4% of schoolboys.

But the fact-checking organisation, Africa Check, reported that Motsoaledi's speech at a "taking Parliament to the people event" in Carolina in Mpumalanga was misinterpreted by a Sowetan journalist and was then re-reported by other news companies and agencies.

Motsoaledi said on Friday the statistics that were incorrectly quoted were on an HIV testing and counselling campaign, which actually found a small number of schools in the Natal Midlands were particularly hard-hit by HIV. Of the group of children tested there, 28% of girls were infected by the disease compared to 4% of boys.

"That journalist did not go and verify the statistics," said Motsoaledi. "If you hear [a figure] that drastic, verify it before running to print."

Agencies such as the UK's Independent, Al Jazeera, and China's Xinhua also ran stories reporting that "a third of South Africa's schoolgirls have HIV".

The figure gained momentum through social media sites Facebook and Twitter and became a hot topic on Redi Tlhabi's show on 702 Talk Radio.

So what is the real statistic?
The department of health's National Antenatal Sentinel HIV & Syphilis Prevalence Survey reported that HIV prevalence among young women aged between 15 and 19 was at around 12.7% in 2011, a decrease in the previous year's figure of 14%.

But this figure reported on only those girls who visited clinics to be documented.

Since HIV testing has not been performed on school children on a national level, it is difficult to say what the real prevalence of HIV is among this demographic.

Barbarah Klugman of the Wits School for Public Health said the reason there were no official statistics was because undertaking a survey on a national level would be an extraordinarily expensive feat.

Moreover, although figures were important and should not be misreported on, knowing what the real figure was would not change the fact that South Africa has a massive HIV problem and the implications of the disease for the country was huge, said Klugman.

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Grethe Koen
Grethe Koen has an Honours degree in political science and worked at an organisation for prisoners’ human rights before joining the Mail & Guardian online team as a sub-editor. When she’s not replacing commas with full-stops and taking out pesky html coding she likes writing about music, gender issues and whatever is trending on Twitter.

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