THE Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) Director Public Health, Group Captain, Dr Munyaradzi Dobbie says Soldiers and other Uniformed Forces are at high risk of getting HIV due to the nature of their job which requires them to move from one place to another at any given time.
By Michael Gwarisa
Dr Dobbie made this call during a Science Day that was hosted by the Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) in Harare this week. According to Dr Dobbie, Key populations were not a homogenous group thus there was need to expand targeted services to other groups at high risk of HIV such as members of the uniformed forces.
One thing which I always hear is about Key-Populations (KPs). However, I don’t hear the mention of the Uniformed Forces whom I think is greater key populace due to the nature of their works which makes them highly mobile and they are always away from their families which is very stressful. For those who are dealing with Key- Populations, I think it is time you reset and include the uniformed forces as part of the key populations and try to mitigate to effects of HIV and AIDS,” said Dr Dobbie.
In Zimbabwe, a number of groups have been classified as HIV high risk groups or Key- Populations (KPs) and these include Cross Boarder and Truck Drivers, Artisanal Miners, Prisoners, Sex Workers, young girls and women among other groups.
While Zimbabwe’s national HIV prevalence and incidence has declined over the years, previous data from a 2003 Zimbabwe Human Development Report claimed that HIV prevalence in the armed forces far exceeded the general population infection rate of 24.6 percent in the general population, and three-quarters of soldiers died of AIDS within a year of leaving the army.
According to a 1998 UNAIDS report on AIDS and the military, personnel from the army had a high risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV. In peace time, STD infection rates among armed forces are generally 2 to 5 times higher than in comparable civilian populations. The difference can be even greater in times of conflict.
Studies that were conducted in the USA, the UK, and France showed that soldiers from these countries have a much higher risk of HIV infection than equivalent age/sex groups in the civilian population. Figures from Zimbabwe and Cameroon then showed that military HIV infection rates were 3 to 4 times higher than in the civilian population.
The UNAIDS report also showed that soldiers on deployment regularly have sexual contacts with sex workers and the local population. For example, 45% of Dutch navy and marines personnel on peacekeeping duty in Cambodia had sexual contact with sex workers or other members of the local population during a five-month tour.
During conflicts times, often condoms are not used consistently and like women everywhere, female military personnel are especially vulnerable. As well as being at higher risk of HIV for physiological reasons that all women share, they are often at a disadvantage in sexual negotiations, including negotiations for condom use.
HIV is a threat not only to military personnel but also to their families and community. According to the UNAIDS, Military HIV programmes are most effective if there is close collaboration with civilian health authorities. The single most important factor leading to high rates of HIV in the military is the practice of posting personnel far from their accustomed communities and families for varying periods of time. As well as freeing them from traditional social controls, it removes them from contact with spouses or regular sexual partners and thereby encourages growth of sex industries in the areas where they are posted.