On 4/15/2010 8:46:21 AM Danielle Skinner of the U.S. Africa Command public affairs office wrote:
The past week, April 12-15, while representing the U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs Office at the 2010 International Military HIV/AIDS Conference, I learned a lot about the challenges facing militaries with regards to HIV/AIDS. Since I don’t have a medical background, a lot of the information was new to me. In listening to the presentations and talking with participants from all over the world (60 countries were represented), I gained a better understanding of how HIV/AIDS affects national security.
As several speakers reiterated throughout the week, a military with members who are sick and dying cannot as effectively protect its people, defend its borders, or participate in regional peacekeeping operations. Since military members are at higher risk for contracting the disease than the civilian population, implementing HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention, and treatment programs within militaries is critical.
The Tanzania People’s Defence Force is an example of a military that is proactive in its HIV/AIDS programs. While talking to an officer from the Tanzania People’s Defence Force, Colonel (Dr.) JW Bigambo, he shared a lot about what the TPDF is doing to combat the epidemic and emphasized the role of leadership in promoting counseling and testing. He said that it has to happen from the top down. Military commanders need to have open conversations encouraging their troops to get tested and know the status of each member of his or her unit. I was impressed to learn that Tanzania’s President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete (who also spoke at the conference) led by example and tested publicly for HIV/AIDS in 2007. Four million people followed his lead.
Having heard so much this week about counseling and testing for HIV/AIDS, I decided to join a group going over to a local VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) facility called Arusha Lutheran Medical Centre. The VCT center is part of the Selian AIDS Control Programme which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through its PEPFAR program.
There are three VCT centers in Arusha. The one I visited was very small, but well-organized. I was impressed with the positive attitudes of all the staff members there, who welcomed us and described what they do on a daily basis. Judith, one of the counselors, said that on average they counsel and test approximately 50-60 clients per day, though that number can vary. Together, the three VCT centers in Arusha tested more than 20,000 clients in 2009, and of those, approximately 1,300 people were HIV positive. In addition to providing testing, they provide pre-counseling and post-counseling.
Judith also described some of the challenges they face, such as the increasing number of people living with HIV/AIDS (more than 5,000 within the Selian hospitals). Another challenge is that their patients don’t have enough food or basic necessities to stay healthy. She described the miserable conditions she sees regularly during home visits with many patients sleeping on dirt floors. Finally, she said there is still a lot of stigma associated with HIV/AIDS testing, and those who test positive face discrimination in the community.
In spite of their many setbacks, the staff members at Selian displayed very positive attitudes and seemed to promote a caring environment focused on making the testing and post-testing processes easier for their clients.
Today, April 15, is the last day of the conference, which will consist of more plenary sessions, discussions, and follow-up talks. From what I saw and comments I heard from other participants, the conference offered valuable opportunities to network with other international military leaders and health experts and to exchange information and best practices.
Read more about the International Military HIV/AIDS conference here: http://www.africom.mil/getArticle.asp?art=4270〈=0.