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Wednesday 10 May 2006
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LIBERIA: Concern over HIV/ AIDS infection rate

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  Claire Soares/IRIN

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

MONROVIA, 21 April (PLUSNEWS) - Liberia’s new peacetime government is alarmed at the rapidly rising rate of HIV and AIDS infections, which is now a “serious problem”, according to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

“HIV/AIDS is now a serious problem in Liberia. The problem has been increasing very rapidly. Now we are talking an average infection rate of 12 percent [and] the rate of infection for women and children is higher,” said Sirleaf at the recent launch of a new HIV/AIDS public awareness campaign in collaboration with the World Health Organisation and the African Union.

During Liberia’s 14 years of brutal warfare, guns and mortars were used alongside sexual violence and rape to terrorise, intimidate and control the civilian population. The UN estimates that 40 percent of all women and girls were raped during the war.

Today, the fighting has stopped and security is provided by 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops from 46 countries. In the past, soldiers from West African states served as peacekeepers in Liberia too.

According to Sirleaf, the presence of large numbers of soldiers has added to the AIDS problem. “We have peacekeeping forces in this country, and they have been here many years of our conflict. They come from areas where the infection rate is much higher. Our sexual behaviour, contribution and interactions with those who come with the peacekeeping forces, all increases the incidence of AIDS. So today we are feeling the effect,” said Sirleaf.

Among the troops that make up the United Nation Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) force are battalions and police support from several southern African countries with some of the highest AIDS infection rates registered in the world.

“It is an international problem,” said Paul Egunsola UNMIL spokesman in response to Sirleaf’s comments. “However, on our side we have been doing a lot in terms of sensitising not only our staff members and troops, but also the public about the danger of HIV/AIDS, and also about measures they can take to prevent the spread of the virus.”

All new UN troops undergo a “mandatory induction exercise” to educate them about AIDS, said Egunsola. New UN peacekeeping guidelines discourage personnel from sexual relations with members of the local community, and ban sex in exchange for money.

UNAIDS has warned that military personnel are a high-risk group for contracting and spreading HIV. “Uniformed service personnel are considered one of the high-risk groups for contracting HIV,” said a UNAIDS report on peacekeepers and AIDS in July.

And new guidelines and UN resolutions for peacekeeping operations, are not working to fully inform peacekeepers of the risks of HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS.

“Despite all that has been achieved since 2000, it is clear that there is still a long way to go... the un-stated goal underpinning Resolution 1308 is that all peacekeepers and all uniformed personnel must be given the knowledge and means to protect themselves and others from HIV. This goal is not being achieved,” said Peter Piot UNAIDS Executive Director at a briefing to the UN Security Council last year.

Some AIDS workers say that poverty – not soldiers - is to blame for the spread of the disease in Liberia. “Young girls are tempted to go to bed with adults, sometimes ignoring the use of condoms, and that too is spreading the virus,” said George Taypison, a social worker with the community-based HIV/AIDS Outreach Prevention Association.

Posters are splashed across Liberia’s war battered capital Monrovia, but youngsters take little notice, students told IRIN. “Almost every school has HIV clubs intended to educate young people about the virus, but some of my friends have a ‘don’t care’ attitude towards AIDS,” said Joanna Bedell, a secondary school pupil. “Most of them confide that they prefer sex without condoms.”

Much of the problem, according to government ministers, is a lack of information on how far the disease has spread in Liberia’s population of some 3 million people. According to Liberia’s Health Minister, Walter Gwenigale, the 12 percent infection rate cited by Sirleaf is not universal “At some testing centres, five or six [people] are tested positive out of 100,” the minister said last week.

The government’s latest estimates could indicate a significant leap from HIV levels at the end of the war. At the end of 2003, just months after the fighting stopped, UNAIDS estimated that 5.9 percent of Liberians lived with the virus.


Recent LIBERIA Reports
Youth not putting HIV prevention lessons into practice,  27/Oct/05
Not enough HIV-testing kits to meet demand, government,  21/Jul/05
HIV help at back of queue in war-battered east,  22/Jun/05
No money to finance AIDS survey, no treatment outside Monrovia,  18/Apr/05
With peace in place, the battle against HIV/AIDS gains momentum,  9/Mar/05
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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