COTE D IVOIRE: Truckers in volatile west are taking more HIV/AIDS precautions
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
MAN, 3 October (PLUSNEWS) - Whether they're buying condoms by the roadside or abstaining from sex altogether, truckers in Cote d'Ivoire's war ravaged 'Wild West' are becoming more cautious about HIV/AIDS, according to the Ivorian Red Cross.
"Studies over the last few months show that truckers are using condoms," said Francois Tia, president of the Ivorian Red Cross in Man, 400 km north northwest of the main city, Abidjan. "According to warehouse managers, shops near major truck stops are buying more and more condoms."
Since 2003, the Red Cross has been teaching truckers about the dangers of HIV/AIDS in Cote d'Ivoire, where UNAIDS estimates that upwards of seven percent of adults are HIV positive - the highest infection rate in West Africa.
Red Cross councillors work with about 200 truckers and apprentices in Man each month, using tools ranging from baseball caps to audio tapes to one-on-one sessions.
Man lies in the rebel-held northwest of Cote d'Ivoire. But trucks carrying goods for trade criss-cross the UN and French monitored zone of confidence that divides the rebel and government territories and, if the drivers are not educated in HIV/AIDS prevention and precautions, they can help to spread the HI virus.
At Facobly Station in the heart of Man, big trucks wait, sometimes for days, to load or unload their cargo before moving on to Burkina Faso, Mali or Guinea.
Under a makeshift shelter put up to protect truckers from heavy seasonal rains, Poule Sidibe, a 25 year-old apprentice, sipped on some sugary tea before heading north. He said that his boss, the driver, is a firm believer in protected sex.
"He buys packs of condoms that he keeps in the cab with him," he said. "He often sleeps with girls we meet in the towns and villages."
In an April report, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) noted a big jump in sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS in western Cote d'Ivoire, an area hit hard by economic hardship, separation of family members, and the proliferation of rebel and government troops.
But truckers play a big role in the spread of HIV as well.
"Our research shows that the cargo on big rigs includes the virus," explained Bruno Sibi, the Red Cross project's leader in Man.
"The drivers have a lot of money on them and that attracts girls in the towns where they stop," he said, adding that the poverty resulting from the country's three-year conflict has left women of all ages increasingly vulnerable to men offering food and medicine.
Hence the campaign to educate these men. And according to Amadou Traore, a trucker's union representative in Man, it's working. "Lots of truckers are buying condoms these days and if they're buying them, I expect they're using them," he said.
Absolutely, says another trucker, Sidou, on his way back from Burkina Faso, 500 km to the north. "Every time I travel, I buy condoms at 100 CFA francs (18 cents) for a pack of four," he said. "I use them wherever I go."
But the project doesn't just preach safe sex. It also stresses abstinence in cases where condoms aren't available. And many of the older drivers, at least, just aren't willing to take the same risks as before.
"It's been five years since I had sex with women I met on the road," said 40 year-old Oumar Konare who has seen four of his fellow truckers die of AIDS-related illnesses.
"I didn't used to believe in AIDS," he said. "But now I know it exists and I really don't want to get sick."