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Swaziland shows signs of turning corner on world's highest HIV rates

By Jon Herskovitz

MBABANE (Reuters) - Swaziland, the country hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, appears to be stemming the pace of new infections thanks to increased funding, more efficient treatment and greater international help, public health workers said.

On a global basis, the rate of HIV infection and the number of AIDS-related deaths have been dramatically reduced, thanks to expanding access to treatment, the United Nations said in a report issued on Monday.

Swaziland has a high incidence rate with about a quarter of the adult population and 40 percent of mothers infected with the virus. Life expectancy in the country of about 1.4 million has dropped from about 60 in the 1990s to 49 in 2012 - one of the lowest in the world, according to U.N. agencies.

"We are in the stabilization phase of the epidemic and seeing the first signs of a reduction on new HIV infections," said Elias Pavlopoulos, the head of the Swaziland Mission with the international aid group Médecins Sans Frontières.

The new HIV infection rate has fallen slightly from 2008 to 2013, according to national data provided by the group also known as Doctors Without Borders.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS can be transmitted via blood, breast milk and by semen during sex, but can be kept in check with cocktails of drugs known as antiretroviral treatment or therapy.

Over the past two years as revenue has increased from a customs union with South Africa that provides the bulk of the Swazi budget, treatment centers have grown in number along with supplies of life-saving medicine.

Aid groups have adopted to local conditions by teaching witch doctors the symptoms of the disease and giving them space to prescribe traditional remedies while also having them steer those likely infected to professional medical clinics.

"The effect of HIV/AIDS on the labor supply is obvious: the loss of young adults in their most productive years results in lower economic output," research group Chatham House said in a report released this month.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz)

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