South Africa has started considering HIV-positive soldiers for deployment on external missions, a move that poses the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) with problems of compensation when the soldier dies of illness, a business daily reports.
The SANDF began deploying HIV-positive soldiers on external missions, after losing a high court application argued by the AIDS Law Project on behalf of healthy but HIV-positive soldiers who had been overlooked for external deployment due to their status, Business Day reports.
“The rate of HIV infection in the SANDF is a closely guarded secret, but is believed to be higher than in the general population”, the newspaper said. University of Stellenbosch sociology professor Lindy Heinecken and law lecturer Michelle Nel some years ago estimates the SANDF`s HIV infection rate at approximately “3% above the national average” but other research seem to suggest that the prevalence of the virus in the armed forces might be lower than that of the general population, leaving the actual situation in some doubt.
The SANDF started deploying HIV-positive soldiers abroad earlier this year after Cabinet approved a new policy on the matter last year in compliance with a 2008 High Court ruling according to which the existing policy prohibition on the recruitment and external deployment of HIV positive members during peacekeeping operations was ruled unconstitutional.
The SA Military Health Service in March said a better understanding of HIV made it possible for the military to safely deploy asymptomatic HIV-positive soldiers, thereby boosting the number of troops available for internal and external deployments.
Army chief Lt General Solly Shoke in March told journalists the military has moved away from saying someone is HIV-positive and cannot deploy. “We deploy people who are healthy, irrespective of their status. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that you don’t expect me to send someone who is near his death to a place like Sudan … because I think I may be held criminally liable for his death. So we do it in a responsible manner, we send people abroad for deployment who are healthy for that particular deployment, irrespective of their status.
But Rear Admiral Philip Schöultz, chief director of operations at the SANDF’s Joint Operations Division (responsible for deployments), told Business Day this week the United Nations (UN) did not pay compensation in the event of a soldier dying from a pre-existing condition like HIV, diabetes or hypertension. This resulted in a loss of about US$50 000 for the deceased’s family.
“Essentially, if a person who is HIV-positive (is deployed) and then dies … they will not pay out,” the admiral said.
HIV increased the chances of soldiers dying from illness and HIV-positive soldiers deployed internally, such as for borderline duties, often battled to cope, the paper said. “People that were HIV-positive that you put into Lesotho in the winter months, there was a higher incidence of deaths and we picked it up very quickly,” he said.
A spokeswoman at the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, Anayansi Lopez, yesterday confirmed that compensation for death in the line of duty was US$50 000. But this was withheld where death, injury or illness was caused by the individual’s own wilful misconduct or wilful negligence, the paper said. Lopez said the UN did not require that individuals at any time be tested for HIV in relation to deployment as peacekeepers. However, it recognised that some countries that contributed peacekeeping troops had a mandatory testing policy and did not deploy HIV-positive personnel, she said. “The sole medical criterion for the deployment and retention of a peacekeeper is fitness to perform peacekeeping duties during the term of deployment.”
But the medical examination must exclude those individuals showing signs of active disease, including clinical signs of immunodeficiency, such as AIDS.