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Progress Reported in Combating HIV/AIDS Within Africa Militaries

  • Karie Atkinson

The Pentagon says a program designed to help combat HIV/AIDS within African militaries is beginning to show signs of progress.

The U.S. Defense Department says it has helped militaries in 29 sub-Saharan African countries develop HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

Dr. Rick Shaffer, of the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, is executive director of the Department of Defense's HIV/AIDS Prevention Program. He says that within African militaries the best results have come from prevention messages that are culturally relevant and applicable.

"In African militaries there are often many cultural issues that an African military feels is appropriate for them that aren't being included in many of the even civilian programs in their own country," Shaffer said. "So we've found that what we've had to do is find those key cultural and military specific issues that will both open the ears of a uniform-wearing member as well as make that uniform-wearing member think that somebody's taken the time to put together materials specifically for them."

Since the program began four years ago, it has helped train more than two-million African military members. The pentagon says it has also trained over 600 medical clinicians in HIV care, diagnostics and counseling, and built 200 counseling and testing centers.

The program has also enabled African armies to assess basic HIV infection rates. Dr. Shaffer says five years ago very few militaries in Africa had that information, for the most part relying on intelligence estimates that were often based on small samples or an assumption that militaries had a higher rate of HIV.

"Since that time we've been able to help currently between 12 and 15 militaries establish formal prevalence rates, whether it's been by force-wide surveillance or whether it's been by scientifically appropriate samples,"he said. "So there are now militaries throughout southern, western and eastern Africa who have the ability to formally know what their HIV/rates are, and that's an important first step to know whether rates are declining."

The Defense Department says it has been able to measure a decline in the HIV rate in Senegal's military, and it is starting to see some changes in the Ethiopian military's rate.

The program, which was launched more than four years ago, focuses on working with soldiers, typically 18-to-25 year olds, who have money and can travel.

But he says the initiative helps not only military populations, but also civilian communities. In many cases, the military base health care program also reaches out to the local population.

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