South Africa’s student population recorded an HIV prevalence of 3,4% in the first comprehensive study to survey the scope and impact of HIV and AIDS on the higher education sector in South Africa. The HIV prevalence among academic staff was 1,5%, administrative staff 4,4% and service staff 12,2%.
The Higher Education HIV and AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) study revealed that the prevalence among students, academic and administrative staff was substantially lower that national prevalence levels while the prevalence among service staff was similar to estimated from other studies.
Results pertaining to students revealed that among the demographic factors, age was strongly associated with HIV as was race, sex and socioeconomic bracket.
In keeping with other prevalence studies done in South Africa the HEAIDS study found that women were far more vulnerable. Women students, with an HIV prevalence of 4,7%, were found to be three times more likely to be HIV positive compared to males who recorded a prevalence of 1,5%. This pattern was consistent across the provinces.
The province with the highest HIV prevalence among students was the Eastern Cape (6,4%) while the Western Cape was the lowest at 1,1%. However, there were often wide variations in HIV prevalence between universities within regions. The Eastern Cape had the university with the lowest HIV prevalence nationally and the institution with the second highest HIV prevalence.
The purpose of the study was to enable the higher education sector to understand the threat posed by the epidemic to its core mandate.
The study involved over 17 062 students, 1 880 academics and 4 433 administrative and service staff at 21 universities in South Africa where contact teaching occurs – UNISA was excluded because it only offers distance learning and Tshwane University of Technology was experiencing unrest during the study.
Participants completed questionnaires and provided blood specimens (finger pricks) for HIV testing.
The study also revealed that the HIV prevalence was low among students starting tertiary education, but escalated as they grew older. Among those aged 18 to 19 years HIV prevalence was lower at 0,7%, in comparison to those aged 20 to 25 years (2,3%) and those over 25 years (8,3%).
The study also looked at the difference between different races. The highest prevalence of HIV occurred among African students (5,6%), with one case among the 3 112 white students. Only 0,8% of Coloured and 0,3% of Indian students were found to be HIV positive.
HIV was also significantly more common among male students (6,5%) and women (12,1%)who reported symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the last year compared to men (2,5%) and women (6%) who did not report an STI.
The study found that male students tended to report more sexual partners in the past month (19%) that women did (6%). The majority of students who had sex in the past year reported using condoms at last sex.
Sexual liaisons between academic staff and students did not seem to be common, with only 2% of academics admitting that their most recent partner was a student.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the HIV prevalence among service staff was 20,3%. Nearly half of all service staff had never tested for HIV and of this group, 10,7% were HIV positive.