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 Thursday 07 June 2007
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SWAZILAND: New campaign supports HIV-positive truckers

Photo: IRIN
The truckers ferry goods to and from markets in South Africa
MANZINI, 1 June 2007 (PlusNews) - Swaziland's truck drivers, who are twice as likely to be infected with HIV than the general population, are finally getting the programmes required to provide them with treatment and support, a conference was told this week.

At the Federation of Swaziland Employers (FSE) conference held in Manzini, 35km east of the capital, Mbabane, it was announced that a comprehensive set of initiatives were to be put in place to test, counsel and treat HIV-positive transportation workers after studies showed "truckers as a group have an HIV infection rate double that of the general population," Khosi Hlatshwayo, coordinator of the FSE’s Business Council HIV/AIDS initiative, said.

UNAIDS estimates the national HIV prevalence rate of people aged 15 to 49 at 33.4 percent, the highest in the world, meaning that at least two thirds of truckers are infected with the virus, although a sampling of truckers' blood at one border post found 95 percent of drivers tested were HIV-positive.

Hlatshwayo told the conference the high incident of HIV/AIDS among truckers was a consequence of road freight companies taking the epidemic lightly, unlike their counterparts in manufacturing and retail.

"Trucking companies have been the least responsive to HIV/AIDS. Few companies have AIDS policies in place. And yet, their employees are not only the most affected but are also the most vulnerable to contracting AIDS because of the nature of a trucker’s lifestyle," Hlatshwayo told the business people.

Swaziland, a landlocked country sandwiched between Mozambique and South Africa with a population of about one million people - two thirds of who live on US$2 or less a day - is wholly dependent on goods imported and exported by road.

The truckers ferry goods to and from markets in South Africa, especially the country's economic hub, Gauteng, or east to the port cities of the Mozambique capital, Maputo and the South African Indian Ocean city of Durban.

Truck company owner and member of the Swaziland Senate, Charles Ndimande, said "The country stands to lose all its senior truck drivers because of AIDS. The junior drivers don’t have the experience that comes from years on the job."

The employers federation reported that HIV/AIDS caused absenteeism, lower productivity, more workplace accidents through fatigue, premature deaths, resulting in unreturned investments on employee training, and on average slashed 20 percent annually from Swazi company profits.

Truckers are also a conduit for the spread of the disease in southern Africa. "Truckers can serve as a link in spreading HIV to dispersed populations. They are given travel allowances, and we find truckers can spend money on commercial sex workers. They return home to infect wives and girlfriends. We also found that low education levels are a contributor to bad judgment," Hlatshwayo said.

Pilot programme

The employer federation announced the launch of a pilot programme at Oshoek, Swaziland’s main border post with South Africa, and the point of entry for freight heading to and from Gauteng province, where Pretoria and Johannesburg are located, which is a three-hour drive.

''The country stands to lose all its senior truck drivers because of AIDS''
A small, three-room corrugated iron building, with a hand painted sign “Truckers wellness centre”, has been estbalished adjacent to the customs office, where truckers often wait for hours to have their documentation processed.

Flanking a reception room is a clinic, where medication is dispensed and voluntary blood tests conducted, as well as a counselling room to advise clients about their status and treatment options. The facility is open from 4pm to 10pm daily and there are plans to extend the opening hours until midnight.

A major obstacle in the treatment of HIV-positive truckers is the paucity of Swaziland's medical facilities. In South Africa, clinics are situated close to highways, where truckers en route to Johannesburg and Durban can pull over and receive medication.

"In Swaziland there is nothing like that. What do you do if a driver needs three injections a day? In South Africa, he can get them. But the continuity in treatment is broken when he enters Swaziland. That is why truckers’ clinics are essential," Hlatshwayo said.

Wellness centres are slated for Manzini's Matsapha Industrial Estate, where most Swazi trucking firms are located, as well as for all seven of the country’s border posts.

A similar initiative was launched in 2002, but failed after the withdrawal of donor support and the inability to establish a clear policy on how to persuade truck drivers to undergo blood tests.

"Times have changed, and there is less fear of testing. The confidentiality rule has proved itself, and this boosts our credibility. People are taking AIDS more seriously. They want to know their status," Amanda Simelane, a volunteer testing counsellor, said.

Antiretroviral drugs are now more freely available, whereas before this was not the case, so unlike 2002, a trucker does not see being diagnosed HIV-positive as an untreatable illness. Previously fears of such a diagnosis caused Swazis to shy away from testing, which exacerbated the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"The testing and treatment programme is anonymous. When a trucker comes through the door, he is given a number. The number is entered into a computerised database, and his treatment and medication will be accessed at all wellness centres," Hlatshwayo said.

The system will also be used for accumulating data on medicine and condom distribution, and other information needed to chart the course of the epidemic in the region.

The wellness centres will also provide testing and counselling services for commercial sex workers, who tout for business at border posts and overnight truck stops.

Per educators from the ranks of trucking firms, will be trained to dispense HIV/AIDS information and encourage HIV testing among their colleagues.


Theme(s): (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
Print report
 More on Swaziland
SWAZILAND: The HIV-related deaths of teachers have translated into teacher-to-student ratios
SWAZILAND: Swazi girls aged 15 -19 years are more likely to be HIV-positive than their male peers,
SWAZILAND: By 2015, almost a third of Swaziland’s children will be denied primary education
SOUTHERN AFRICA-SWAZILAND: UNAIDS estimates HIV prevalence in Swaziland to be about 33 percent however
SOUTHERN AFRICA-SWAZILAND: Swaziland is projected to loose 22,000 people a year to HIV/AIDS by 2010.
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