SUDAN: Former rebel SPLA seizing the initiative on HIV
JUBA, 29 May 2007 (PlusNews) - The leadership of the former rebel southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has launched a new offensive, this time against the AIDS pandemic in the region.
|Sudanese soldiers have been recruited in the fight against AIDS
"One could term it 'the second front' because of the magnitude of the risk," Kuol Diem Kuol, SPLA spokesperson, told IRIN PlusNews in Juba, the provincial capital of southern Sudan.
Under a three-year project being carried out by the army's HIV/AIDS secretariat with assistance from the non-profit health NGO, IntraHealth International, selected soldiers are trained to inform men and women in the barracks about HIV and the availability of testing facilities. So far, five army voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) centres have been set up.
The SPLA became the official army of the south after the end of a 21-year north-south war. Although prevalence in Sudan remains low in comparison to neighbours - estimates put Sudan's prevalence at 2.6 percent compared to Uganda and Kenya at around six percent - the SPLA leadership is well aware that resting on their laurels could have disastrous consequences.
According to IntraHealth, "addressing alcohol abuse and sexual violence as they relate to HIV transmission are also priorities, especially given that there is currently little awareness within the SPLA that these are problems".
The SPLA's HIV/AIDS secretariat and IntraHealth release monthly bulletins to keep the soldiers informed about HIV and their efforts to curb its spread within the army.
"The SPLA ministry is the only one that has an HIV/AIDS secretariat," said Caroline Karatu a programme manager for IntraHealth. "It is treated like any other directorate in the SPLA and is fully integrated."
Although talking about sex openly remains something of a taboo in southern Sudan, where knowledge levels are low, Karatu said engaging troops in discussions had been easy.
"There is a common perception that HIV/AIDS is from outside," said Karatu. "We don't yet have enough data to target risk groups like prostitutes, [so] we're telling them that anyone who is having sex is at risk."
Despite the full support of the army leadership, getting information and condoms out to all of the south's army - spread across the vast Southern Sudan, including in many logistically challenging locations - continues to be an uphill struggle for the secretariat and IntraHealth.
Karatu said condoms remained a relatively rare commodity, despite high demand for them; the hundreds of thousands IntraHealth have distributed to the soldiers have been picked up quickly.
The HIV/AIDS Secretariat is hoping that over the next several months the uptake at the army's VCT centres will increase.
"The numbers testing positive have been relatively low," said Karatu, "but from lessons learned from neighbours, sitting back and relaxing can lead to an explosion".
Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]