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S. Sudanese army needs to combat high HIV rate, data shows

Bonifacio Taban
The HIV rate among soldiers in the national army is nearly double the national rate, health officials say.
13.05.2013  |  Bentiu
An HIV/AIDS awareness poster by Yei-based artists Semedi Sey.
An HIV/AIDS awareness poster by Yei-based artists Semedi Sey.

Officials are taking steps to try and reduce the spread of HIV within the country’s armed forces after the statistics, the first data of its kind, revealed the high level of infection among the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers.

Esterina Novello Nyliok, head of South Sudan’s AIDS Commission, said new data from 2012 showed the HIV rate in the SPLA stood at five percent. The national rate is 2.6, down from three percent in 2010. This is the first time the commission has gathered information on HIV among the armed forces.

Dau Aleer Abit, the commander of the SPLA’s medical corps, said many soldiers do not take the necessary steps to prevent HIV transmission. The lifestyle of individuals is where the problem is. Especially if someone has a low income […], a low level of feeding and drinking and socialising. That’s where there are problems with HIV,” said Abit.

The lifestyle of individuals is where the problem is.”
Dau Aleer Abit
He said the SPLA is working to increase awareness among soldiers about how HIV is spread. He said there were only 20 HIV awareness units within the SPLA, but they are raising that number to 43. Each unit will be stationed at a base and staffed by nine officers, who will be recruited from the SPLA.

The units provide testing and anti-retroviral drugs for HIV-positive soldiers but Abit said the services are not regularly used. He says one of the critical issues for lowering the HIV rate in the army is shrinking the taboo surrounding voluntary counselling -- to encourage wider testing for the sexually-transmitted disease.

There is a stigma when someone is labeled to have HIV,” he said. Usually people shy away from coming to be tested.”

He said the SPLA is funding the project, although he declined to specify the cost. Donor agencies provide anti-retroviral drugs and condoms.

Due to decades of relative isolation, South Sudan has a comparatively low rate of HIV infections. Experts fear, however, that the numbers of people traveling to and from Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia and abroad, will boost the spread of the disease.

Unity State Deputy Governor Michael Chiengjiek Geay spoke to NGOs last week, saying the disease is more rampant in South Sudan since independence in 2011.

The statistics are alarming”.
Michael Chiengjiek Geay
Austerity measures, meanwhile, have impeded the government’s ability to allocate funds to boost countrywide awareness. But Deputy Governor Geay said that when oil flows again, funds will be targeted at increasing HIV/AIDS awareness in the nation.

He expressed concern about the high HIV rates among the national army, given the frequent movement of soldiers from state to state. Calling the new statistics alarming”, he said that the generals and commanders need to help boost awareness.

The Ministry of Health estimated 16,000 new infections per year occur in the countryside, while the disease is spreading fast, especially among the young people.