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Give peacekeepers ARVs, new study urges

[South Africa] SA peacekeepers in Burundi. [2005] UN/IRIN
Troops run a greater risk of contracting HIV during conflict
As the African Union (AU) moves towards establishing a formal peacekeeping brigade, a new study has suggested the need for troops on missions to be supplied with anti-AIDS medication.

"Botswana and South Africa are the only two countries in Southern Africa which supply their troops on external operations with 'takeaways' of ARV [antiretroviral] prescriptions for 90 days," said Martin Rupiya, one of the authors of the study, 'The Enemy Within: Southern African Militaries' Quarter-century Battle with HIV and AIDS'.

The study, backed by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), an Africa-based think-tank, deals with the experiences of armies in Botswana, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

UNAIDS estimates that the risk of military personnel contracting HIV is two to five times higher than among the general population during peacetime, and troops run an even greater risk during conflict.

Soldiers were among the most vulnerable members of society, according to Dr Reginald Matchaba-Hove, a senior lecturer in the Department of Community medicine at the University of Zimbabwe. "Those in the military are predominantly in the most sexually active age groups and young recruits may be socially inexperienced," he said, writing of the Zimbabwean experience in his contribution to the study.

He pointed out that soldiers were often away from their families for long periods, in situations where they were surrounded by opportunities for casual sex; they had steady incomes, privileges and power, creating potentially unbalanced sexual relations with local civilian populations. There was also the possibility of occupational infection through caring for the wounded.

The deployment of HIV-positive soldiers who indulged in risky behaviour could also have other medical implications, such as the development of new strains of the virus, Matchaba-Hove said, and cited the deployment of Zimbabwean troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the late 1990s for four years.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, run by the US Department of Energy, which keeps genetic details of every HIV strain, found new strains in the DRC. "Having exposed Zimbabwean troops to the DRC means that the troops could have introduced new strains to that region, and also that they could have brought back new HIV strains, along with other communicable infectious diseases, such as Ebola."

Southern Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world. In Zambia and Zimbabwe some 20 percent of adults are infected with HIV or have AIDS, while the prevalence rate in both Swaziland and Botswana is near 40 percent, Rupiya commented.

Although there is no exact information on the infection rates in the region's defence forces, according to the ISS study, militaries in sub-Saharan Africa are now reporting 20 percent to 40 percent seropositivity, and as much as 50 percent to 60 percent where the virus has been present for more than 10 years.

Botswana's defence force is the second largest employer in the country after the civil service, but the researchers were unable to access statistics on HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the army. Researchers in Swaziland encountered similar problems, but were able to access a 2005 survey by the defence force, which found that 21.5 percent of its potential recruits were HIV positive.

The study does not provide statistics on Zambia, but said more military personnel have been lost to AIDS-related illnesses since 1983 than in all its military operations, including the independence struggle.

In 2002, the Southern Africa HIV/AIDS Information Dissemination Service, an NGO, reported that about half of Zimbabwe's soldiers were HIV positive. According to the Zimbabwe Human Development Report 2003, about 75 percent of Zimbabwean Defence Force personnel die within a year after being discharged, and 72 percent of all prison deaths were due to HIV/AIDS.

Considering that "Southern Africa represents a market of some 230 million people, of whom perhaps 20 percent are infected with HIV and require medication", Rupiya suggested that the region concentrate on setting up factories to produce cheap ARVs to combat the threat to the region's working population.

The ISS study urged militaries to conduct comprehensive HIV/AIDS studies to assist such initiatives, and to resist covering up the situation. It also called on defence forces to acknowledge the existence of homosexual relationships, which are considered taboo or even criminalised in some countries in the region.

The authorities should set up a structure that included people in the ranks living with HIV/AIDS, who could inform policymakers, and recommended that defence forces spend more on housing for married couples in military camps, shorten periods of troop deployment, and help soldiers utilise their free time on sports, in libraries and other forms of entertainment as "antidotes to boredom and risky behaviour".

//This article is part of an IRIN/PlusNews series on HIV/AIDS and communities of humanitarian concern. Visit: PlusNews. //

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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