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West African Military Forces Seek Strategies to Fight AIDS - 2004-02-10

Military officials from West African nations are meeting in Ghana's capital, Accra, to develop an action plan to reduce HIV and AIDS in their armed forces. In a telephone interview from Accra, a visiting expert on development from Tulane University in the United States, Bill Bertrand, explained why it is important to focus on AIDS in African armies.

"If you are really trying to stop and prevent HIV/AIDS in the area, you have to take into direct consideration that armies, using the evidence from the southern African countries where we have better data, generally run about two to three times the prevalence rate at large," he said.

Mr. Bertrand believes the reason for the large discrepancy between the rates in the armed forces compared to the general public is obvious.

"Well, it is sort of common sense," he said. "You have young males who are in the peacekeeping and military forces, who have money in their pocket. So they are taking advantage of those opportunities for sexual access, and that is where the spread is taking place."

At the conference, Ghanaian General Daniel Twum said extensive efforts have created the opposite situation in his army.

General Twum said the HIV/AIDs infection rate in Ghana's army is lower than in the general population. He said soldiers have been told if they become infected they will be banned from peacekeeping missions, which the soldiers consider opportunities for free travel and higher wages.

Countries attending the conference, sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, are sharing ideas like that, in an effort to promote AIDS awareness in their armies.

The participants are expected to sign a detailed plan on how to implement their ideas when the conference ends Wednesday, and to send that plan to the ministries of defense in the region.