The South African National Defense Force has launched a treatment-based HIV/AIDS research project, for soldiers and their dependents.
The project was launched with the opening of the first military clinic where uniformed South African personnel and their dependents can come for HIV testing, and also receive treatment for AIDS. In addition, those who make use of the facility will have access to professional counselors and social workers.
Participation in the project is voluntary, but those who participate will also form part of a research project seeking to identify the best treatment and management regimens for HIV and AIDS. Organizers hope the results of the study can eventually be applied throughout the country.
There are about five million HIV-positive South Africans - the highest number in the world. This figure is about 20 percent of the adult population, and officials believe the statistics are similar in the military services.
The army's treatment effort is called Project Phidisa, which means "to heal" in Tswane, one of South Africa's 11 official languages.
The project will also tackle the problem of the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, which experts say plays a major role in the spread of the virus. Deputy Defense Minister Nosizwe Madlala-Routledge said she wants soldiers to see, and to show others, that the benefits of treatment are more important than any possible negative reaction by a victim's friends, family or community.
"We are going to provide an opportunity and support basis for members of the South African National Defense Force to come forward and test, in the first place, but also they will [do so] with the knowledge that there is the possibility for assistance with treatment that will prolong their lives," said Ms. Madlala-Routledge.
And Project Phidisa has already brought hope to some, even though the first clinic was only opened on Tuesday. Soldier E.V. Ndlebe, who was diagnosed in October when he underwent testing prior to deployment with a peace mission in Rwanda, says that he now has the strength and health to pursue his goals.
"I am feeling more hopeful for the future. I am seriously feeling more hopeful, because even myself I did agree that I am positive but I am not feeling that I am positive. But I am feeling that I am free and I can work like everybody, studying like everybody because I am doing a diploma in construction technology," said the soldier.
The South African military is the main organization operating Project Phidisa. But local academic and research institutions are also involved, as is the U.S. Defense Department and National Institutes of Health.
There are plans to establish six HIV/AIDS testing and treatment centers at military installations across South Africa.