HIV prevalence in South Africa appears to have stabilised and may even be declining, according to the latest figures in the government's 2006 National HIV and Syphilis Survey.
The Department of Health study estimated that 29.1 percent of pregnant women were living with HIV in 2006, compared to 30.2 percent in the previous year.
Among pregnant women under the age of 20, HIV prevalence dropped from 15.9 percent to 13.7 percent, and fell from 30.6 percent to 28 percent among women aged between 20 and 24 during the same period.
However, experts at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) told IRIN/PlusNews that the drop was statistically too insignificant to warrant celebration.
"It is too small to even indicate a clear reason for the reduction. Besides, new HIV infections are still occurring at alarming rates," said Dr Olive Shisana, executive director of the HSRC.
She pointed out that more than 500,000 new infections had occurred in South Africa during 2005 alone, and cautioned the government against becoming over-confident of the success of its prevention campaigns.
South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang recently told parliament during a speech on her departmental budget that reductions in HIV prevalance, especially among pregnant women, was mainly as a result of "our continued focus on prevention as the mainstay of our response to combat HIV and lead to an HIV-free society".
"As important as these [prevention] interventions are, it is still too early to base a decline in HIV prevalence on them," she said. "This is especially true when considering the high rate of teenage pregnancies that still takes place. What does this say about prevention messages and the need for safer sex?"
A recent report by the Department of Social Development, published in the March 2007 edition of the HSRC magazine, Review, found that teenage mothers (women younger than 20) made up 13 percent of the country's more than 45 million population.
According to the 2006 National HIV and Syphilis Survey, around four out of 10 pregnant women seeking care in the public sector in KwaZulu-Natal Province were estimated to be HIV positive.
Shisana noted that the new study covered twice as many women as previous surveys, and samples had been collected from more than three times as many clinics.
"There is a chance that the increase in respondents might have also influenced results, as some of the added sites could have been located in areas with lower HIV prevalence," she argued.
The 2006 survey was based on a sample of 33,033 women attending 1,415 antenatal clinics in all nine of South Africa's provinces, which was double the number in the 2005 study.
Although acknowledging the tiny reduction as a much-needed boost to the morale of a nation hard-hit by HIV and AIDS, Shisana commented that "we are not out of the woods just yet".