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Military losing war on HIV/AIDS

A recent report by the joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) paints a gloomy picture on the future strength of the military as the HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to decimate its population.
Charles Banda

The HIV/AIDS has become a greatest threat to the strength of the Malawi Defence Forces (MDF). A recent report published by the joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) predicts that between 25 to 50 per cent of men and women in the Malawi Defence Force may die of AIDS by the year 2005.

The news that HIV/AIDS is threatening to kill Malawians more than they have been killed in any conflict they have themselves involved in was revealed at the weekend during the launch of results on a study of factors, contributing to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Malawi Defence Forces, which took place at Kamuzu Barracks in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe.

According to the UNAIDS report, the Malawi Defence Force has experienced a decline in human resources because of the high incidence of AIDS. 'It is very important for the Malawi Defence Force to attain and maintain the established size of the army so that it may execute its tasks efficiently in time of war, conflicts and disasters. The major factor for the decrease in strength may be attributed to the HIV/AIDS epidemic,' reads part of the report.

According to unpublished information, the current strength of the Malawi Defence Force is barely 60 per cent of its required strength of service members. The report further reveals that at any given time there are army service members who contract the virus through other sexual partners when posted far from there accustomed communities or their families for long periods of time.

"Just last year from January 2002 to December 2002, 105 service members have retired and 131 service members have died mainly due to HIV/AIDS related diseases. Soldiers who have died last year alone have left over 500 children of whom a quarter may be infected by the HIV. The Malawi Defence Force is still experiencing ever increasing numbers of service members dying and many are bedridden, possibly due to HIV/AIDS related illnesses," reads the report in part.

Speaking during the launch of the study, Malawi's defence minister Rodwell Munyenyembe said: 'In the limelight of my concern over the decline in number of active soldiers, I am impressed, that the results arising from this study conceal nothing. It is an open secret that while HIV/AIDS has made alarming in-roads across the country, the military, per se has already suffered tremendously, just like many institutions in terms of dwindling manpower.'

Munyenyembe added that the decline of the army workforce is mainly through service members who are terminally ill or those who work more slowly as a result of illness and those who die and are not replaced. However Munyenyembe hinted that the army's recent commitment in drafting the Malawi Defence Force AIDS policy is a step in the right direction.

Malawi Army Commander, General Joseph Chimbayo said that soldiers are a special risk group whose personnel sometimes operate in a very hostile environment in pursuit of the national agenda which, in the course, exposes them to increased sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

Among the factors that predispose soldiers to AIDS, according to Chimbayo are that they feel invincible, have ready cash stacked in their wallets but do not carry condoms. They are additionally under extreme peer pressure to have sex and act aggressively and they place the 'conquest' syndrome as important to them.

However Chimbayo said that the army is determined to fight the HIV/AIDS issue head on by sensitizing the service members on the dangers they face. He indicated that the launch of the Study of Factors Contributing to the Prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the MDF was one of the initial steps to address the pandemic that has decimated the MDF so far.

The study indicated that 84 percent of the Malawi Defence Force soldiers are sexually active when posted to peacekeeping missions and border posts.

"The practice encourages the use of commercial sex workers in the new communities. As a result local sex industries grow in response to demand from military bases and camps. It is a prime challenge to military establishments to rethink this traditional feature of operational practice in the light of social and health issues," reads part of the report.

Two years after the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) recommended to government the need to recruit HIV/AIDS free soldiers only, the army has said the process has not yet been implemented. According to Army General, Joseph Chimbayo, the army had recommended to government two years ago to give it the a go-ahead to screen all new recruits. 'The recommendation was passed on to government but, up to now we still haven't got a response,' Chimbayo said.

When asked why so many people were turned away during this year's recruitment campaign, and if that was not a sign that the army was conducting HIV tests secretly, Chimbayo said that it was normal for the Army to disqualify some people during recruitment campaigns. 'We conduct medical tests on all individuals before they join the Army. Even though we have turned away some prospective recruits it does not mean that we test for HIV,' Chimbayo explained.

He explained that the Army recommended to government to allow them to go ahead to recruit HIV/AIDS free soldiers only because the training soldiers undergo is very rigorous and if one is HIV positive he or she may easily develop full blown AIDS much sooner.

Commenting on the same issue in a separate interview Colonel Mafumu Gondwe said that he feels that it would be very important to conduct HIV/AIDS tests on new recruits because training a soldier is an expensive exercise.

Said Gondwe: "The importance of screening new recruits can not be overemphasised. We need physically fit young men and women to become soldiers. Government spends about US$3000 to train one soldier and hence the need to have healthy soldiers who will be able to serve the country fully for a considerable period of time, say 20 years or more".

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