Heightened awareness and fear of infection with the virus that causes AIDS was a key driving force in the steep decline in new HIV infections in Zimbabwe between 1997 and 2007, says a study published this week by the US journal PLoS Medicine.
The examination of why HIV prevalence in the country fell from 29 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2007 was carried out by epidemiologists at Imperial College, London, and Harvard University School of Public Health, Cambridge, in partnership with Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health, the UN Population Fund and UNAIDS.
Though HIV prevalence remains high by African standards, the fall in HIV prevalence in Zimbabwe is the largest seen anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, researchers said.
The study shows HIV incidence – the number of new infections taking place each year - declined markedly, especially after 2000, falling from 5 infections per 100 persons per year to less than 2 infections per person per year in 2010.
Simon Gregson of the Imperial College School of Public Health said it was considered to be important to identify the specific reasons for the sharp decline in prevalence.
"Very few other countries around the world have seen reductions in HIV infection, and of all African nations Zimbabwe was thought least likely to see such a turnaround. This is why there was such an urgent need to understand its direct and underlying causes."
Researchers looked at social factors that helped reduce infection, yielding useful lessons for other countries struggling with the deadly pandemic.
The report says attitude changes were brought about by mass media campaigns through churches and workplaces among other channels. Awareness of AIDS deaths and the resulting fear of contracting the virus motivated changes in behavior.
Researcher Timothy Hallett of the School of Public Health at Imperial College, London, told VOA Studio 7 reporter Sandra Nyaira that other factors might have been at work in Zimbabwe, such as its well-educated population and strong marriage traditions.
Safaids Country Director Monica Mandiki said Zimbabwe must scale up its campaign against HIV/AIDS to avoid backsliding on its progress.