The South African military and HIV/Aids

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The theme for World Aids Day on December 1 is “Getting to zero: zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, zero Aids related deaths” which Lieutenant Colonel Philip Coetzer sees as an opportunity for all soldiers and their families to increase awareness about the status of the pandemic and encourage progress in HIV/Aids prevention, treatment and care.

The SO2, SA Army Armour Formation, points out that the national defence force in South Africa has made “great progress” and is at “a better level” than many other African countries as regards HIV/Aids in the military.
“We have seen scientific breakthroughs and through the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) and the value-based programme of the Chaplains’ Service in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), known as Chatsec (Combat HIV/Aids through Spiritual and Ethical Conduct) as well as the military sectoral HIV/Aids programme of the Department of Defence and Military Veterans (DoDMV) have all contributed to attitude and behavioural change. I would also argue the integration of gender equality and value-based behaviour into the Masibambisane (Let’s take hands together) campaign facilitated much of the success achieved to date.”

Coetzer maintains the successes achieved to date must be built on and in answer to the question “what can still be done to be even more effective in HIV/Aids programmes in the military” cites the one force concept which drives the operations side of the SANDF.
“Participation of part-time and full-time soldiers in the current HIV/aids programme planning, execution and monitoring can build further momentum.
“Families of Reserve Force soldiers and their communities can also contribute in making the civil/military alliance concept a reality in the ‘getting to zero’ part of this year’s World Aids Day theme.
“The continued sharing of knowledge and giving of inputs, not only from the perspective of a full-time soldier but also from that of the part-time soldier’s view of life and the world, is important. The inputs of part-time soldiers and further inputs of the broader business and community sector are indispensable. A typical example of where inputs can be of further importance, for example with regard to “zero discrimination”, is to mobilise further support for including disabled people in HIV/Aids programmes.”

Coetzer also makes the point it is easily forgotten that military veterans and their families are part of our communities.
“They are our responsibility. The argument that military veterans are elderly people and are not a priority for inclusion in HIV/Aids planning does not hold water because many retired soldiers also fall under the name of military veterans. Many ex-soldiers and military veterans and/or family members of soldiers are also persons with disabilities.
“The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that 15% of the world’s population has a disability makes people with disabilities (PWD) the world’s largest minority. Based on the recent World Report on Disability, it is estimated that disability is increasing in southern Africa with a current estimate of at least 24.2% of the population in South Africa having at least some form of disability.
“The prevalence of disability is growing mainly due to our ageing population, crime related injuries, accidents and the increase in chronic health conditions, including HIV and Aids. Through the development of a disability sector plan, which accompanied the last National Strategic Plan of Combat HIV and Aids in South Africa, a step was taken towards full recognition of the vulnerability of persons with disabilities related to HIV as well as the risk of people living with HIV to develop HIV-related disabilities.
“This is in line with the UN Programme on HIV and Aids (UNAIDS), which recognises vulnerable populations with limited access to basic human rights are often at increased risk of exposure to HIV. This and the available literature suggest people with physical, intellectual, mental or sensory disabilities are as likely, if not more likely, to be at risk of HIV infection, while at the same time, significantly less likely than a non-disabled person to receive medical care, counselling and support, should they become infected.”

Coetzer sees December 1 this year as a milestone in the history of military involvement with HIV/Aids.
“It could be, and I hope it will be, the first time South Africans unite around one goal – to end Aids.”