HIV/Aids is a deadly disease, which is currently not curable. The United Nations AIDS agency (UNAIDS) says the evidence that HIV is the underlying cause of AIDS is ‘irrefutable’. HIV was isolated and identified as the source of what came to be defined as AIDS in 1983/84. HIV destroys blood cells called CD4+ T cells, which are crucial to the normal function of the human immune system. Studies of thousands of people have revealed that most people infected with HIV carry the virus for years before enough damage is done to the immune system for AIDS to develop.


On 21 November 2007, a new UN report said more than three-quarters of Aids-related deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa was officially the country with the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. The consequences of HIV and AIDS for the economy in the countries in southern Africa are terrible. HIV/Aids is becoming the most devastating disease humankind has ever faced.

In the same UN report on 2007 (UN 2008 Global Report on the HIV and AIDS Epidemic) around 5.7 million South Africans were estimated as having HIV or Aids, including 300 000 children under the age of 15 years. 350 000 people died from AIDS in South Africa in 2007. Women face a greater risk of HIV infection. On average in South Africa there are three women infected with HIV for every two men who are infected. The difference is greatest in the 15-24 age group, where three young women for every one young man are infected.

One of the most significant damages caused by this disease is the number of children orphaned as a result of AIDS. Obtaining accurate statistics on the number of children orphaned is problematic. If orphans are defined as children from birth up to the age of 17 whose mothers have died, UNAIDS estimates that there were 1 400 000 children orphaned due to AIDS living in South Africa at the end of 2007. This figure is higher than for any other country. However, it is estimated that Zimbabwe has 1 000 000 children orphaned due to AIDS among a total population of fewer than 13 million.

How does South Africa celebrate World Aids day? In South Africa, this day was first celebrated in 1996 when the Department of Health organised a special event called the National World AIDS Day in Bloemfontein, Free State, and in Pretoria, Gauteng... read more


Estimates of the numbers of people infected with HIV and dying of AIDS are based on surveys and models. Most people in South Africa do not know their HIV status. Therefore, researchers and statisticians use the prevalence of HIV among groups whose status is known (such as pregnant women attending antenatal classes) to work out the likely prevalence rate in the general population. They also "project" how many people are likely to become infected and die in future, based on what is already known about infection and mortality rates.

Many factors contribute to the spread of HIV. These include: poverty; inequality and social instability; high levels of sexually transmitted infections; the low status of women; sexual violence; high mobility (particularly migrant labour); limited and uneven access to quality medical care; a history of poor leadership in the response to the epidemic and society leaders dying and leaving a generation of children growing up without the care and role models they will normally have. In addition many people in South Africa do not know their HIV status because as a predominantly sexually transmitted disease, its discussion is often taboo. Education, testing, counseling and living positively after being infected play a role in reducing the numbers of infection.

This is a war, it has killed more people than has been the case in all previous wars, we must not continue to be debating, to be arguing, when people are dying and I have no doubt that we have a reasonable and intelligent government, and that if we intensify this debate inside, they will be able to resolve it” - Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, Sunday Times, Sunday 10 Aug 2003

HIV can be transmitted from one person to another through:

Transmission and symptoms:

  • Unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse with an infected person
  • A mother's infection passing to her child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding (called vertical transmission)
  • Injections with contaminated needles, which may occur when intravenous drug users share needles, or when health care workers are involved in needle prick accidents
  • Use of contaminated surgical instruments, for example during traditional circumcision
  • Blood transfusion with infected blood

The only way to know if you are infected is to be tested for HIV infection; you may not have any symptoms for many years.

Aids Foundation South Africa - to find out more about the accuracy of today’s HIV tests and where you can get tested.
The website answers many frequently asked questions and also hosts a section on the prevention and treatment of HIV/Aids and what the South African government is doing to fight the disease.


There are some symptoms that are common warning signs of infection with HIV:

  • rapid weight loss
  • dry cough
  • recurring fever or night sweats
  • severe, unexplained fatigue
  • swollen glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • diarrhoea that lasts for more than a week
  • white spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, or in the mouth or throat
  • pneumonia
  • TB
  • red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
  • memory loss, depression, and other neurological disorders

However, each of these symptoms can be related to other illnesses so the only way to be sure of HIV infection is to get tested.


Aids Foundation, South Africa [online], available at: [accessed 15 April 2009]|History and Science of HIV and Aids [online], available at: [accessed 15 April 2009]|Mandela, N (1998), Keynote Address at a Rally on World AIDS Day. |Mandela, N (2000), Closing Address at the 13th International AIDS Conference.|Bazilli, S., Bond, J., McPhedran, M. and Sherret, L. (2006) Prognosis for the Inequality Virus, Gender, Democracy, Reconstruction & HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, Concept Paper for the Commonwealth Secretariat, Gender Section, Social Transformation Programmes Division.|Van Wyk, B. (2003). Dark side of the rainbow: the impact of HIV/AIDS on the African renaissance. Centre for the Study of AIDS|Van Wyk, B. (2003). A brief history of a global effort to fund the Campaign against Aids, Centre for the Study of AIDS. Centre for the Study of AIDS.|Van Wyk, B. (2003). The New Drug War. Centre for the Study of AIDS.|Van Wyk, B. (2003). Bringing out the best but mostly the worst in people: addressing HIV/AIDS-related stigma in South Africa.|The SAHARA archive, SAHARA is an alliance of partners established to conduct, support and use social sciences research to prevent the further spread of HIV and mitigate the impact of its devastation in sub-Saharan Africa. The website houses many research papers and publications on HIV/Aids in sub-Saharan Africa|NAM Aids Map, NAM is an award-winning community based HIV information provider. The team at NAM is based in London, in the UK, but their information is known and used across the world. This is a good resource.|TAC, Treatment action Campaign, campaigning for the rights of those living with HIV/Aids in South Africa.|Cameron, E (date unknown) Legal and Human Rights responses to the Hiv/Aids epidemic, prepared for a Court of Appeal exposition.

Collections in the Archives