GHANA: ECOWAS governments tackle HIV/AIDS in their armed forces
ACCRA, 9 February (PLUSNEWS) - Top military commanders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met in Ghana on Monday to draw up a detailed two-year action plan to tackle HIV/AIDS within their armed forces.
"Data on the absolute prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the armed forces is not very good right now for West Africa," Professor William Bertrand, an official of the West African Health Organisation (WAHO) told PlusNews on the sidelines of the three-day meeting in Accra.
However, WAHO reckons the situation could well be similar to that in Southern Africa, where HIV prevalence rates in the military are between three to five times that of the general population.
Bertrand said West African soldiers were particularly at risk from HIV/AIDS because of their frequent participation in peacekeeping operations in the conflict-torn region.
"The sub-region's military, as represented by this conference, is very convinced that it needs to deal with this problem with more effective collective efforts to lower the prevalence rates within its ranks," he stressed.
Troops from several of the ECOWAS's 15 member states are currently serving in peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire.
"Though, it is very difficult to gather statistically sound evidence from war-zones, it is quite likely that more people will be killed by AIDS in these areas than bullets. It is therefore very incumbent on all of us to address this as one of the priority problems," Bertrand said.
Delegates may well take a detailed look at Ghana's own strongly enforced policy for dealing with HIV/AIDS in the armed forces, which has yielded positive results.
"In our armed forces, the prevalence of HIV is lower than that in the general population of Ghana, which currently stands at 3.8 percent," Ghana's Military Director of Medical Services, Brigadier-General Daniel Twum told PlusNews.
The military high command actively encourages responsible sexual behaviour and condom usage throughout the ranks.
For many years Ghana has been a major contributor of troops to UN and ECOWAS peacekeeping forces. However, soldiers who are HIV-positive miss out on these prized opportunities for travel, prestige and extra pay.
"Our soldiers infected with HIV/AIDS are not allowed to go on peacekeeping missions," Brigadier General Twum said. "They are aware of this policy and make an active personal effort to prevent themselves from catching the virus in order to take part in these operations."
He and other Ghanaian officials refused to give precise data about AIDS levels in the military and to what extent they had been reduced.
The Accra meeting aims to define concrete steps to be implemented by each government within the framework of an action plan developed by West African health and defence officials in Mali last year.
The conference organisers are optimistic that Ghana's success case will be replicated by the military of other ECOWAS member countries.
"Interventions within the military generally tend to be more successful than interventions in the general community. We do expect to see those rates beginning to drop," Bertrand said.