Friday September 21 5:29 PM ET

Insurers: 5 Million S. Africa AIDS Deaths in Decade


JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African insurance actuaries, worried about the impact of AIDS on that industry, said on Friday that five million people could die of AIDS in the next decade if there is no widespread change in sexual behavior or medical intervention.

According to its latest model, the Actuarial Society of South Africa said that in 2000, 5.3 million people were infected with HIV in the country, of whom 236,000 were living with AIDS.

Some 139,000 were estimated to have died of the disease that year, amounting to around 26% of all deaths in the country, which has the highest number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world. Around 64,000 babies were infected with HIV in 2000.

Actuaries calculate insurance risk and advise insurance companies on what premiums to set. Their model showed that a ''modest'' change in behavior and intervention by the health authorities would result in 1.2 million fewer people being infected with the virus in 10 years' time than if there is no change. It would also prevent infection in more than half the babies that would become infected without the changes.

The society described this modest change as a five-year phasing-in of drugs to help prevent mothers from passing the disease to their babies, a doubling of condom use and a 15% reduction in the number of people's sexual partners.

Official figures put the number of people infected with HIV in South Africa at 4.7 million, or one in nine people. President Thabo Mbeki, who touched off a controversy for questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, recently claimed that the disease is not the biggest killer in his country.

The actuarial society said it hoped its data would "help provide a clearer understanding of the dimensions of the epidemic'' in South Africa.