(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Army to introduce compulsory HIV testing

Swaziland's small national army, the Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force (USDF), has confirmed plans to introduce a programme of compulsory HIV testing for its personnel.

"This is an information gathering exercise, and not an exclusionary policy. No one will be fired because he or she is HIV-positive. We have to know how big the problem is," a high-ranking army official told IRIN.

Colonel Gwalagwala Dlamini, the army's chief of personnel and chairman of its HIV/AIDS Task Committee, said in a recent statement that testing for the USDF's 3,500 soldiers and recruits would be compulsory, but would remain anonymous.

"All personnel will be tested, but test results will not bear the name of the person tested. At this point, we need to know what percentage of soldiers are HIV-positive. This is for planning purposes, to help our mitigation efforts," Dlamini said.

However, Dlamini added there was a voluntary component to the plan, which would allow soldiers to elect to receive their test results, and to undergo voluntary testing and counselling (VTC).

"The VCT programme is conducive and friendly, and the counselling is done professionally," Dlamini said. Until this year, army personnel had to go off base for testing and counselling.

"Voluntary counselling and testing is the point of departure in the fight against HIV/AIDS," said Dlamini. "It is a key component of prevention and care programmes. In prevention, personnel learn how the immune virus is transmitted, how to practice safe sex, the advantages of taking a test, and steps to take to avoid becoming infected or infecting others."

This year, 13 testing and counselling centres will be established at the army's headquarters in Bethany, 25 km east of the capital, Mbabane, and at military bases throughout the country.

The army's policy is to "encourage" recruits to take blood tests to determine their HIV status. However, it is not clear whether a recruit's job is jeopardised by a refusal to take a blood test.

"The USDF recognises the fact that several aspects of the military environment put its armed forces personnel at risk, including the fact that most soldiers are in the age group mostly at risk of HIV infection (18 to 39 years), as well as the ethos of risk-taking that characterises the military. Yet, one of the most important factors that increase the risk of infection is posting personnel away from their communities, country, region and continent," said Dlamini.

Some AIDS organisations have alleged that the army could move towards a policy to discriminate against HIV-positive people in the ranks, which would further stigmatise the disease in a country where close to 40 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive, but it is still rare for people to publically admit their status.

On the other hand, Janice Simelane, a health worker in the commercial city of Manzini, said the army was faced with the same personnel crisis, due to AIDS, as the police force, other government agencies and civilian businesses and organisations.

"The National Emergency Committee on HIV/AIDS says that half of men and women in their twenties are HIV-positive. The army cannot make them afraid to join up, or there will be no recruits," Simelane said.

Sources at the Swaziland Royal Police Force told IRIN that a programme for testing police personnel was being drafted.

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