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HIV/AIDS In The Military: A New Security Threat - 2003-02-28

Many of the world’s armies may be under attack from an unseen enemy, HIV/AIDS. The latest issue of World-Watch Magazine - from the World-Watch Institute – says, “Military populations are among the most vulnerable to HIV infection.”

Staff researcher Radhika Sarin (RAD-hee-kah sah-REEN) writes, “senior military officers and national defense ministries are beginning to recognize that HIV/AIDS is a security threat.”

In the article – HIV/AIDS in the Military – she says soldiers in developing countries are more at risk.

She says, "At least in the African nations, we’re talking about anywhere from ten percent of the military infected to as high as sixty percent. And that’s pretty serious. We don’t necessarily have a very good picture worldwide. Primarily this is because it becomes a national security issue. A lot of militaries are very hesitant to make this information public."

She says most military analysts agree that the HIV prevalence rate among militaries is two to five times higher than that of the general population.

Ms. Sarin says there are a number of reasons why soldiers are at greater risk of HIV infection. The first is that they are generally young and sexually active. But military training, she says, may also be a factor.

"Think about the training that a lot of military personnel get," she says. "And it’s one that encourages risk taking. It’s one that encourages aggression. I mean that’s the very nature of the military. The problem is that when this risk-taking ethos (culture) translates into people’s personal behavior. And we have lots of evidence showing that soldiers engage in risky behavior off the battlefield and I’m talking about purchased sex, sex with commercial sexworkers. You also have the issue of the uniform representing money and power in a lot of places. And unfortunately, you do have a situation where civilians are engaging in sex with soldiers either for money or for physical security or to obtain rations, you know, just food," she says.

She says when soldiers face shortened lives as a result of being infected with the AIDS virus, their “risk-taking and misbehavior increases.” She says security analysts warn soldiers are also less motivated to end conflict.

The World-Watch Institute researcher also says, “War triggers mass movements of people, breakdowns in basic services and general chaos.” And she says in some countries, one of the weapons being used by soldiers is rape.

She says, "Whether it’s being used systematically by the armed forces to create terror. We’ve seen that in Rwanda, we’ve seen that in Bosnia. This kind of sexually violence profoundly increases rates of HIV and other STIs (Sexually transmitted diseases)."

Yet, when war ends and peace takes hold, the spread of HIV/AIDS continues.

Ms. Sarin says, "You have on average about one million soldiers routinely leaving the world’s armed forces every year. Of course when conflicts end it can be much larger. Reintegrating soldiers back into civilian society is very challenging. And on top of that you have the situation where you might have soldiers who are infected with HIV coming back into their communities with the risk of spreading it to their spouses or to others in their community. And now some militaries are trying to incorporate HIV prevention education as part of the debriefing that soldiers get before they leave the military."

This is true of United Nations peacekeeping troops as well as soldiers in regular armies. Besides HIV/AIDS prevention education, UNAIDS and the U-N Department of Peacekeeping Operations are promoting condom use as well as voluntary counseling and testing.

HIV/AIDS threatens to rob militaries of experience and skills, leaving less experienced personnel to take on more responsibilities.