Swaziland, which has the world's heaviest HIV rate, has in five years cut the rate of new infections nearly in half by boosting the public's access to virus-suppressing drugs, researchers said Monday.
In Swaziland, where one in three adults is infected with HIV, the AIDs-causing virus, officials have vastly expanded public programs to test people for HIV infection, increasing acess to life-saving, anti-retroviral treatment (ARV).
"The rate of new HIV infections has been reduced by half," Swazi Health Ministry official Velephi Okello told journalists at an HIV science conference in Paris.
"Remarkable progress has been made. ... In controlling the HIV epidemic."
In 2011, 31 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 49 among the entire population of just over 1.2 million were infected with HIV, according to government data.
This makes Swaziland the country with the highest national rate of new infections and the highest proportion of people living with HIV, according to the authors of the new study.
The latest data is based on blood samples taken from nearly 11,000 people aged 15 and above and revealed that roughly 27 percent of the population was HIV-positive in 2016.
This translates to an infection rate of 1.4 percent among 18-to-49-year-olds, down from 2.6 percent in 2011 - a 46-percent reduction.
Ninety-five percent of HIV-positive pregnant women last year received drugs to prevent transmission of the virus to their offspring.
"As a result, fewer than 1,000 children became infected with HIV in Swaziland in 2016," the U.N. agency said.
The infection rate was higher among women than men, according to a survey report to the International AIDS Society Conference. The decline was notably steeper for men, with 52 percent compared to women with 40 percent.
The survey revealed that 73 percent of people on ARV had successfully put the virus in remission - meaning it is not replicated to make them ill - compared to 35 percent in 2011.
The advancements are the result of the country's vastly improved HIV treatment program according to researchers. The rate of infected people on ARV treatment rose from 37 percent in 2011 to 74 percent last year.
ARV not only stops the HIV virus from replicating and attacking a patient's immune system but also curbs its spread to sexual partners.
"Our recipe for success is that we. ... Have been able to scale up a lot of the preventative and treatment services in the country," Okello said.
"We have more than doubled the number of people who have started on anti-retroviral treatment, and we have also nearly doubled the number of men who have been circumcised in the country."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is "compelling evidence" that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexual sexual transmission of HIV by as much as 60 percent in men. The number of HIV tests conducted in Swaziland more than doubled from 176,000 in 2011 to 367,000 in 2016.
"Basically, we think that this is one of the recipes [for success], coupled with the government's commitment to buying and procuring the ARVs for people in the country so that there is a sustainable response going forward," said Okello.
Despite the "great news," she cautioned much more needs to be done to maintain the downward trend.
"While we do celebrate these findings, we still know that Swaziland is facing a severe HIV epidemic," she said.
"In the end, we would like to see a Swaziland which is free from AIDS."