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SWAZILAND: Army slowly winning the HIV/AIDS battle

Photo: IRIN
Fighting HIV/AIDS
Mbabane, 14 December 2010 (PlusNews) - Swaziland has the world’s highest estimated HIV prevalence, and its military is not exempt, although a wellness and prevention programme has seen a remarkable drop in AIDS deaths over the past two years, with a steady decline in new infections.

"We have seen [that] the infection rate has dropped dramatically – not suddenly, but declining gradually. We just tested 200 soldiers, and six were HIV-positive," said Captain Bongani Msibi, Umbutfo Swaziland Defense Force (USDF) Monitoring and Evaluation Officer assigned to the HIV/AIDS Wellness Programme. The unit operates out of army headquarters in Bethany, 20km east of the capital, Mbabane.

"The composition of the army mirrors the society in many ways, and it may be time to see how other HIV programmes in the country are getting similar results, because our success shows the infection rate is going down," Msibi added.

Army officials could not reveal exact figures for HIV-positive personnel or deaths from AIDS-related illnesses due to confidentiality issues, but an estimated 26 percent of Swazis between the ages of 15 to 49 are living with HIV.

Susceptibility

"A soldier’s life makes him or her vulnerable to AIDS. A soldier is far from home. There is loneliness and boredom. Sometimes it is tempting to use sex against the loneliness and boredom," Lieutenant Colonel Thembeni Magongo, implementing officer in charge of the programme, told IRIN/PlusNews.

The army's HIV/AIDS campaign was introduced almost a decade ago in 2000 and uses peer counsellors and special drama shows to encourage enlisted staff to be tested. The shows feature a trio of HIV positive soldiers who put a human face to the condition, which is highly stigmatized in Swazi society.

"These soldiers are our best tools. We call them our heroes, because they have saved so many lives," Magongo noted.

Private Ntokozo Zwane went public with his HIV-positive status in 2008, and is one of the three enlisted men who testify on living with HIV at army events.

"I am not yet on medication, but I am keeping myself healthy by eating properly, avoiding stress, getting exercise and being faithful to my wife," he said, looking like any other fit soldier in his 20s.

Officer Class 2 Samuel Hlope offers counselling, while his wife, who is HIV negative, counsels the families and wives of soldiers who test positive.

"She helps us a lot. She convinced us that with this sensitive matter women like to talk to women. More and more of our soldiers are women. And this is the way it is with the peer counsellors in the ranks. The top talks to the top, the middle talks to the middle and the bottom talks to the bottom," said Magongo.

Once trained, peer counsellors seek out their fellow soldiers and officers, from training fields to sports grounds to local hangouts, driving home the message.

Addressing stigma

Lance Corporal Thembinkhosi Dlamini, second in command of the campaign, also credits the Simomondiya Drama Society for reducing the stigma attached to HIV.

"They are part of our shows and the soldiers respond well to their plays. They have done a lot to boost the popularity of condoms. Before, no soldier would wear a condom. Condoms were thought to be unmanly and unSwazi,” Dlamini said.

This past year, the army distributed 1.2 million condoms, donated by the American NGO AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Antiretroviral drugs are available through the army's treatment programme.

John Kunene, principal secretary for the army, was transferred from the Ministry of Health, where he was also principal secretary, at the height of HIV infections among army personnel five years ago. "I often asked myself why I was brought to the army when I have no military background," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

"A lot of soul searching and praying accompanied my transfer, and I felt I was placed here to help the army in this crisis. We are making headway,” he said.

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Theme(s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Gender Issues, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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

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