United Nations representatives say peacekeeping forces can and must play a role in AIDS awareness and prevention in areas where they are stationed. UUAIDS' country coordinator for Eritrea, Dominique Mathiot, told reporters at an international AIDS conference in Nairobi that peacekeepers are often seen as a problem, not a solution, in the spread of AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes the disease.
"Uniform services, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have HIV prevalence rates often much higher than in the general population," he said.
Mr. Mathiot says this is because peacekeepers are under stress, are often homesick, and experience peer pressure to engage in sexual behavior.
A UNAIDS study released at the conference says military personnel are two to five times more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases than the civilian population. One third of officers and soldiers under U.N. command are stationed in Africa, home to 70 percent of people living with HIV or AIDS.
But, says Mr. Mathiot, the experience in Eritrea shows peacekeepers can actually be part of the solution to curbing the spread of AIDS, both among the troops and in the wider population.
The 4,200-person United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, which has been in Eritrea for almost two years, is the first known peacekeeping mission to conduct a large-scale AIDS program. This follows a U.N. resolution adopted three years ago calling on members to address the issue of AIDS and peacekeeping operations.
The mission's deputy special representative of the secretary-general, Angela Kane, says the mission initially started AIDS awareness and prevention programs among the troops, but partnered with U.N.-AIDS and the Eritrean army to reach the wider Eritrean community.
The mission's most successful effort, says Ms. Kane, was to train highly motivated Eritreans on AIDS awareness and prevention, who would then go out and train others.
Eritrea is estimated to have up to 70,000 HIV positive people, and the prevalence rate is 2.4 percent of the population. The rate is double among Eritrean military personnel.
"We wanted peacekeeping forces to be seen as not something sinister or oppressive, but as something positive, that would give something back to the community," said Ms. Kane. "What we also wanted to give the message is that we can actually help prevent the spread of AIDS, and not contribute to it."
However, there have been problems with the program. Ms Kane says new troops come in every six months or so, and have to be trained from scratch. She says mission officials insist governments train their peacekeepers in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, before they arrive. Mission staff members reinforce what they have learned.
She says there is also a lot of denial from governments, which insist that their soldiers are married or religious, and therefore don't engage in casual sex and don't need the training.