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 Wednesday 03 February 2010
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SOUTH AFRICA: Military gets new HIV policy

Photo: IRIN
"Military people share all the misunderstandings of wider society"
JOHANNESBURG, 26 January 2010 (PlusNews) - The announcement in late 2009 that the government had approved a new HIV/AIDS policy in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was widely welcomed by AIDS and human rights lobbyists as long overdue.

A November 2009 statement by the SANDF noted that the new policy made provision for the "recruitment and selective deployment of HIV-positive members" of the military and complied with a High Court ruling in May 2008, which found the previous policy of excluding HIV-positive people from recruitment and foreign deployment unconstitutional.

The South African Security Forces Union (SASFU) assisted by the AIDS Law Project (ALP), had brought a case to the High Court on behalf of two of its members who were denied employment and deployment opportunities because of their HIV-positive status.

The SANDF's surgeon general, Lt-Gen Vejaynand Ramlakan, said the military had been in the process of reviewing its HV/AIDS policy long before. He noted, however, that the particulars of the new framework remained classified, although parts of it were "in the public domain" and already being implemented.

"The reason [the new policy] has taken so long is that we're dealing with the stigma and fears that surround HIV and AIDS," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "Military people share all the misunderstandings of wider society. We needed to consult very widely with all military commanders and to convince them of the need to change the existing policy, and to prevent any misunderstanding about whether combat readiness would be affected."

Other southern African defence forces and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations also had to be consulted, as well as the South African National AIDS Council. The new policy also had to ensure that "the health standards of the SANDF are commensurate with the tasks they have to perform."

In the past, military policy-makers argued that the tasks armies had to perform took precedence over the individual rights of people living with HIV and AIDS, and that the demands of foreign deployment and combat could jeopardize the health of an HIV-positive soldier and that of his colleagues.

These arguments have carried less weight since antiretroviral (ARV) therapy turned HIV into a chronic, manageable disease.

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Implementing the policy

A draft of the new policy, obtained by ALP, draws on a system of classifying soldiers according to their health status and needs.

An HIV-positive soldier who is stable and asymptomatic can now be classified as a "G2K1", meaning they have a chronic but treatable disease and can be deployed "anywhere at any time".

However, if HIV-positive soldiers are to be deployed abroad they must have a CD4 cell count [a measure of immune system strength] higher than 350, and an undetectable viral load [the amount of HI virus in the blood]. The ALP pointed out that this excluded anyone not on treatment, as only ARVs could reduce the viral load to undetectable levels.

S'khumbuzo Maphumalo, an ALP attorney, described the requirement as not reconcilable, with an emphasis on non-discrimination of asymptomatic HIV-positive individuals. "The way we see it, someone who has a very high CD4 count is unlikely to fall ill," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

An HIV-positive recruit is also required to be on ARVs for three to six months before being considered for deployment, and failure to adhere to treatment is grounds for being declared "temporarily unfit for deployment and military courses".

Ramlakan confirmed that a soldier would have to be on ARVs to qualify for foreign deployment, but declined to discuss the rationale for such a provision. He also noted that personnel with higher health classifications would be given preference for foreign deployment.

The only HIV-positive soldier known to have been deployed abroad is one of the applicants in the court case brought by SASFU, Sergeant Sipho Mthethwa, an operations planner sent to Sudan for six months in October 2009.

On his cell phone from Darfur, in western Sudan, Mthethwa said he was "very, very happy [about the new policy]. Now I feel that I'm a full member of the SANDF because I do everything that other people are allowed to do."

He claimed he was still treated unfairly by his superiors. "They just want to make sure that I get demoralized, or I quit, or I get sick. Hopefully that's not going to happen," he told IRIN/PlusNews, adding that he was fit and taking his daily ARV medication.

Ramlakan said a campaign to inform unit commanders and health workers about the new policy was underway, but Dan Mthembu, of SASFU, told IRIN/PlusNews that his union had yet to see the policy, or have the opportunity to ensure it was properly implemented. "We need to sit down and work together, but we've been excluded from the process of implementation."


Theme(s): (PLUSNEWS) Care/Treatment - PlusNews, (PLUSNEWS) Conflict, (PLUSNEWS) Governance, (PLUSNEWS) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


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