Health Experts Urge Military Leaders to "Know Your HIV/AIDS Epidemic"

Knowing the HIV/AIDS epidemic at regional and national levels is the key to developing strategies for combating it, said health experts at the International Military HIV/AIDS Conference, April 13, 2010 in Arusha, Tanzania.

The second day of the conference kicked off a series of plenary sessions focusing on developing plans for improving HIV/AIDS surveillance and data use. International health experts spoke on the importance of knowing the HIV epidemic in both the military and civilian populations.

National surveys are an important way to understand the causes and effects of the epidemic and develop strategies for combating it. Surveillance data can be used as a baseline for measuring the effectiveness of a nation's HIV/AIDS program. However, many militaries, particularly, in poorer countries, face challenges in implementing these surveys because they require a lot of resources and strong commitment by leadership.

Lieutenant Colonel (Dr.) Stephen Kusasira, Uganda People's Defence Force, said that his nation benefits from national surveys by using the findings to reevaluate and improve their programs.

"There are two choices," said Kusasira, "to go in blindly and shell aimlessly; or gather the necessary information and respond appropriately."

Kusasira said that a recent survey in Uganda found that there was a discordance in their counseling and testing program, in that it targeted only uniformed personnel and not spouses. "What is the use of testing if you are not targeting spouses?" he asked. This finding allowed the UPDF to reevaluate their program in order to take the necessary measures to expand the program to families.

Rwanda and Mozambique are two other countries which are taking proactive approaches to improving their military's counseling and testing programs. Representatives from these nations spoke in detail about national programs during a conference breakout session.

Eugene Zimulinda, U.S. Embassy in Rwanda, said that lack of research is a key issue affecting counseling and testing. He also emphasized the importance of testing and counseling families of service members. According to Zimulinda, Rwanda launched a national campaign in 2008 promoting couple's counseling.

Colonel Jose Feliz, Mozambique Defense Force, said that the most important intervention for HIV/AIDS is prevention. Counseling and testing, one of the key prevention measures, was first introduced within the Mozambique military in 2004. In 2009, eight military counseling and testing facilities were opened. Approximately 10,000 soldiers were tested in Mozambique in 2009 following a three-month campaign throughout regions of Mozambique, with the slogan, "The brave soldier gets tested for HIV."

"Every commander should know his unit's status," said Colonel (Dr.) JW Bigambo, Tanzania People's Defence Force. Bigambo said this knowledge is critical for any military so that they can effectively care for infected personnel and prevent new infections. He stressed that the effort to combat HIV/AIDS starts from the top, and that military leadership should serve as role models, highlighting the advantages of knowing one's HIV status and having open conversations among unit members.

"I hope that what was difficult for me will be easier for others because we have support from the top," said Bigambo.

Throughout the remainder of the conference, participants will learn strategies for effective data collection and use to help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their national health care systems.

The International Military HIV/AIDS Conference, co-hosted by the Tanzania People's Defence Force and the U.S. Department of Defense, continues until April 15. Representatives from 60 multinational militaries, including nearly 40 African militaries, participated in the conference with the purpose of sharing information and working together in developing a joint strategy for combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

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