International Military HIV/AIDS Conference Opens in Tanzania

The International Military HIV/AIDS Conference opened April 12, 2010 in Arusha, Tanzania bringing together representatives from 60 multinational militaries, including nearly 40 African militaries, to share information and work together in developing a joint strategy for combating the pandemic.

The four-day conference, co-hosted by the Tanzania People's Defence Force and the U.S. Department of Defense, represents one of the most inclusive international military partnerships ever undertaken, according to DOD officials. Participating in the event is a diverse group of nearly 300 international military leaders, HIV/AIDS specialists, and representatives from the U.S. DOD, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), and multilateral and non-governmental organizations.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete presented the keynote address, emphasizing the importance of developing regional, national, and international strategies to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

"An epidemic of HIV/AIDS can be no less destructive than that of warfare itself by overwhelming health and social services, infecting high levels of human mobility and mortality, and by creating millions of orphans," Kekwete stated. "HIV/AIDS can cause social and economic crisis of unprecedented proportion and threaten the greater stability of nations and societies."

Kekwete, a strong supporter of HIV/AIDS prevention and testing programs, launched a national campaign in 2007 for counseling and testing which he led from the front by publicly having himself tested. Nearly 4 million people followed his lead and received HIV/AIDS tests.

"We cannot and must not allow HIV/AIDS to debilitate our men and women in uniform," Kekwete added.

U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Alfonso E. Lenhardt also compared the HIV/AIDS pandemic to warfare, focusing on the role of military leaders in promoting the health and wellbeing of his or her troops.

"Many battles have been won by whichever leader was best able to keep his soldiers healthy and fit to fight. In many conflicts, more people die from disease than the weapons of the enemy," Lenhardt said. "The security of our nations depends in part on the ability of our military forces to protect citizens from harm. A military force weakened by disease cannot fulfill its proper role."

Throughout the week, participants will share best practices in leadership, HIV prevention, treatment, strategic information, and will develop plans for improving HIV/AIDS surveillance and data use.

The conference addresses the growing global need for HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention, and treatment programs, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, which remains the region most heavily affected.

According to the 2009 Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and World Health Organization (WHO) update on HIV/AIDS, the number of people living with HIV continues to increase. In 2008 there were 33.4 million people living with HIV worldwide, 20 percent higher than the number in 2000. Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 68 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and for 72 percent of the world's AIDS-related deaths.

With service members identified as among the highest-risk group for contracting HIV/AIDS, the implementation of awareness, prevention, and treatment programs within militaries is crucial.

General William E. Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, was unable to attend the conference, but commented on the importance of these programs to African militaries.

"The United States has made tremendous investments in increasing access to HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and treatment in Africa. Over two-thirds of all people living with HIV are in Africa, and the disease has significant implications for economic growth, stability, and human suffering," said Ward.

According to U.S. Africa Command health officials, many African nations have decreased their prevalence rates due in part to U.S. military health assistance programs.

"Our HIV programs with African militaries support and complement our military professionalization and capacity-building initiatives," Ward added. "A military that can effective address HIV/AIDS is a military that can more capably defend its borders, deploy to peacekeeping operations, and contribute to regional security and stability."

U.S. Africa Command supports African militaries in establishing HIV/AIDS prevention programs through its Partner Military HIV/AIDS Program (PMHAP), as part of the DoD HIV/AIDS Prevention Program (DHAPP). Together, these programs aim to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among military personnel in African nations. PMHAP, implemented through DHAPP, is a key agency of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the U.S. response to the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Through PEPFAR and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, prevention programs have been established in 43 African nations.

The first day's conference agenda focused largely on the important role of leadership in implementing HIV/AIDS programs. According to Major General Maurice Oyugi, Kenya Ministry of Defense, successful programs require strong leadership to coordinate the response to HIV/AIDS through education, testing and counseling. The role of commanders in the fight against HIV/AIDS, said Oyugi, is to protect their troops by serving as role models, implementing testing and offering counseling to all.

The conference, continuing through April 15, will include plenary talks, interactive discussion sessions, poster sessions, and planning workshops, where participants will learn methods to improve their nation's HIV/AIDS programs and increase their capacity to provide effective and sustainable programs.

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