MORE South Africans are taking HIV tests, using condoms and getting circumcised in an effort to protect themselves from the disease, according to the findings of the third National HIV Communication survey, released in Washington on Tuesday.

The study found communication programmes, including those produced by loveLife, Soul City and Siyayinqoba Beat It, were influencing South Africans to change their behaviour to reduce their risk of getting HIV - good news for public health experts intent on reducing South Africa's HIV burden. South Africa has one of the world's worst HIV epidemics, with about 11% of the population infected.

"South Africa has a fairly catastrophic HIV epidemic. We produce a lot of communication campaigns and there is a need for funders and implementers to assess whether they are effective," said Saul Johnson, MD of Health and Development Africa, which managed the survey.

These programmes were expensive and competed for consumers' attention with advertising campaigns, movies and music that promoted messages at odds with those of the HIV campaigns, so it was vital to measure their impact, he said. "A lot of (companies) use sex to sell their products. You just have to look at alcohol advertising, which promotes a culture of buying crates of beer at a time," he said.

HIV campaigns try to impress upon people the dangers of excess alcohol consumption, which lowers inhibitions and affects people's health.

The research was conducted jointly by Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa, loveLife and Soul City, and was funded by the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

It found two-thirds of South Africans said this year that they used condoms the first time they had sex with a new partner, up from just 18% in 1992, a change the researchers attributed to both communication campaigns and the increased availability of condoms.

The survey found 17,4-million South Africans or 63% of the population had taken an HIV test at some point, of which 10,2-million people were tested in the past year as part of the government's high-profile testing campaign.

The research included 10034 respondents, drawn from all nine provinces. It found more than half of South African men are now circumcised, and just under a million men were considering undergoing the procedure in the next year to protect themselves from HIV. Three years ago, before the government began promoting male circumcision, only about a third of South African men were circumcised.

Dr Johnson said the one worrying aspect of the survey was that it found the number of people exposed to HIV communication campaigns was falling. The survey found that the more people were exposed to HIV communication programmes, the more likely they were to adopt or maintain behaviour that reduces their risk of getting HIV.

Of the people surveyed, 83% could correctly recall the content of one or more of the 19 communication campaigns under way in South Africa, and people who were exposed to more of these programmes were most likely to use condoms, get tested for HIV and consider getting circumcised in the next year.

In 2009, 90% of respondents had been exposed to HIV communication campaigns.

kahnt@bdfm.co.za