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HIV/AIDS biggest threat to African militaries – Africom

altThe biggest challenge southern African militaries are facing is HIV/AIDS, as the disease crosses borders and decimates militaries, according to an official from the US military’s Africa Command.

“This little disease kills their militaries…and decimates family members,” an official from Africa Command (Africom) said, pointing out that the hardest threats to tackle are the invisible ones like disease.

Militaries are usually considered to be more susceptible to HIV/AIDS and other such diseases due to the fact that they are comprised primarily of high-risk groups: young, aggressive males between 16 and 24. Boredom, alcohol and drugs exacerbate the spread of HIV/AIDS while the chance of infection through wounds or contaminated blood his higher during conflict.

There are very few statistics available on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in African militaries, but according to some reports, Uganda’s defence force lost more soldiers to AIDS than to fighting in two decades of war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, and in Zambia, AIDS-related illnesses have killed more military personnel since 1983 than died in all its military operations combined, including its independence struggle.

HIV/AIDS is also a drain on militaries as they have to care for sick personnel and have to make up for soldiers unfit for duty. This also impacts on budgets. Nevertheless, militaries are generally well structured and disciplined and have the ability to control the disease.

According to a 2006 report entitled ‘AIDS, Security and the Military in Africa: a Sober Appraisal’, HIV/AIDS amongst African militaries is not as bad as perceived. “It appears that military populations do not necessarily have a higher prevalence of HIV than civilian populations…Although the epidemic has the potential to undermine the functioning of national militaries, and may have done so in isolated instances, armies in general are well placed to withstand the threat…the hypothesis that AIDS has the potential to disrupt national, regional, and international security remains speculative.”

Nevertheless, as the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in most Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries is between 15 and 30%, it is still a major problem facing many African armed forces.

The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) stands at 8.5%, compared to the national prevalence rate of around 19%, according to SANDF Surgeon General Lieutenant General Veejay Ramlakan. This is for both Regular Force and Military Skills Development members.

“South Africa has shown great progress and is at a better level than some regarding AIDS in the military. Neighbouring countries are of more concern,” an Africom official said, and added that the trend of HIV/AIDS in the South African military was decreasing. The movement of people from neighbouring countries needs to be looked at in order to mitigate the effect on South Africa, he added.

As a result of the threat HIV poses to militaries in Africa, the United States budgets approximately $100 million a year for its Partner Military HIV/AIDS Programme (PMHAP), which provides care and prevention for soldiers and their families in 43 of 54 African countries. The project has reached 500 000 people and screened 400 000. Forty thousand individuals are on ARV treatment.

The US Department of Defence has been involved in HIV/AIDS prevention since 1999 through its DoD HIV/AIDS Prevention Programme (DHAPP). US Africa Command created the Partner Military HIV/AIDS Programme to implement DHAPP objectives. “Africa Command…acknowledged HIV as a potential threat to Africa’s regional security and stability by adopting the vision to ‘Eliminate new HIV cases in partner nation militaries’”, the command said.

PMHAP activities include prevention training, support for orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS, counselling and testing services, treatment and providing infrastructure, information and training.

For FY2011 Africom funding managed by PMHAP included more than $128 million from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and more than $4 million from DHAPP.

According to Africom, for the FY2012 period, $1-2 million was budgeted for South African HIV/AIDS relief. This entailed the distribution of 45 000 female condoms and putting 2 350 South African military personnel and family members on ARVs, according to Africom.
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