INTRO: Latest statistics in South Africa show a fifty-seven percent increase in mortality in the five years up to 2003. Experts say the increase can be ascribed to AIDS as people infected with HIV in the 1980s and early 1990s succumb to the disease. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our bureau in Johannesburg.

TEXT: South Africa's statistician general says the data for the period provide indirect evidence that the HIV epidemic has caused the increase in mortality. Pali Lehohla says this can be deduced from the number of deaths of adults in their prime caused by diseases commonly associated with AIDS such as tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia.

The Treatment Action Campaign an AIDS charity and pressure group, said in a statement that the figures are a clear indication that South Africa has moved from a pandemic of HIV infections to a pandemic of deaths resulting from AIDS.

The group said that the figures have once again highlighted the government's slow response to the pandemic, particularly its failure to provide treatment at the promised rate at public health facilities.

In November 2003, the government said 500-thousand South Africans required treatment immediately. At the same time, it introduced a comprehensive plan to combat the disease, including providing treatment to 53-thousand patients in public health facilities by next month.

While the plan itself has been widely praised by independent experts, its implementation has been severely criticized. About 45-thousand people are receiving treatment privately; but at present, only 23-thousand patients are receiving treatment under the government program, mostly in the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces.

Other provinces, including KwaZulu/Natal which has the second highest incidence of the disease in the country, are lagging far behind in offering treatment with some treating less than one thousand. Last week, the national health minister told parliament she was unable to provide an accurate number for AIDS patients receiving treatment in public health facilities because, she said, information systems on patient data are not, in her words, up to scratch.

Mr. Lehohla's department, Statistics South Africa, gathered data from 3-million death notice forms completed between 1997 and 2003. The study found that while reporting of deaths has greatly improved in South Africa since 1998, weaknesses remain, particularly in rural areas where those reporting the death are often officials, not doctors or nurses. And too, the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS means that even in urban areas AIDS is often not listed as the underlying cause of death when sufferers die of opportunistic diseases associated with the virus.

The Treatment Action Campaign says the figures clearly point to a urgent need to step up treatment and prevention efforts in South Africa. The organization urged the government to ensure that at least 200-hundred thousand patients are receiving AIDS treatment at public health facilities by the start of next year.