Soldiers – a population at risk. Risky, loose behaviour concerns Armys in its HIV/AIDS battleSunday, October 1, 2006 – 4:16 pm
Source: Guyana Chronicle
THE unique nature of their occupation in the fields and in remote areas, a certain degree of loose behaviour and promiscuity, the taboo subject of homosexuality in the military, and a general stoicism in the face of an HIV positive result, are among the issues the Army must face internally in its fight against HIV/AIDS.
Though soldiers are readily accepting condoms at Army bases across Guyana and they have a healthy appetite for HIV/AIDS education, some of them engage in risky sexual behaviour, Major Patrick West told the Sunday Chronicle. Major West is the Programme Manager of an 18-month programme for the military that is being executed by the Army’s credit union. The Ministry of Health/World Bank HIV/AIDS Prevention Project in March this year granted funding to the Army for the programme to the tune of US$33, 500.
West said the general aim is to strengthen the ability of the credit union of the GDF’s Medical Corps to assist in preventing and controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS among serving and past members of the GDF.
West admitted that there is definitely promiscuity and loose behaviour among soldiers, but stopped short of disclosing the nature of the risky behaviour and avoided answering directly suggestions of men having sex with men (MSM) in the Army, and paying women for sexual favours especially in interior locations. The idea of MSM is still very much a taboo subject in Guyana, and it could create unease for the Army to say boldly that this practice occurs in its barracks.
Major West stressed that the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) does not discriminate, and pointed out that some of its ranks with HIV/AIDS have “unique skills critical to the defence of the nation,” and so every effort is made to assist them and their families.
UNAIDS Coordinator in Guyana, Dr. Michel DeGroulard, said soldiers “are a population at risk, because they are away from home and they can end up having sex outside of home and with multiple sex partners.”
Asmita Chand, Civil Society Coordinator with the World Bank project on HIV/AIDS agreed.
“We definitely see them as a high risk group because of the work they do, being posted in the fields and working in remote areas away from their families,” she said, and added that the project saw the advantage of working with the soldiers because “they could reach communities we cannot”.
DeGroulard acknowledged that MSM is one of the more under-addressed issues in the national fight against HIV/AIDS.
“We still need to find ways of addressing it better,” he said.
Under the Army HIV/AIDS programme, soldiers and their families, as well as residents of remote villages where the Army has postings, are beneficiaries.
In addition, he said, youths – the major recruiting age of the Army – also benefit.
In order to accomplish the objectives of the programme, several workshops have been conducted. Among these are peer education sessions where soldiers are taught how to advise their colleagues on safe sexual behaviour.
In addition, soldiers have been selected to undergo training at the National Blood Transfusion Service (NBTS), so that they can effectively test blood for strains of the HIV virus. Major West said as many as 60 soldiers would be trained.
Lynette Hardy, Senior Laboratory Officer with FXB Guyana, based at the NBTS said it takes about four days for the soldiers to learn how to conduct the Rapid Test for HIV/AIDS, which allows for same day results.
The soldiers have to undergo another seven days of training in counselling. She said this is important because “HIV/AIDS is no longer a secret.” She says those who go for pre-testing counselling might begin to feel that “everybody knows their business” when they have to go to someone else to do the testing and then for someone else to offer ppost-test counselling.
As a result, all those being trained to test blood are also being trained as counsellors, so that someone going for testing only has one point of contact.
At the moment, the Army only has one permanent Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) site at headquarters, Camp Ayanganna in Georgetown. But Major West hopes that with additional funding from other donors besides the World Bank, VCT sites could be set up at all 15 bases of the military.
Major West said the Army becomes aware of soldiers HIV/AIDS status when they go for blood testing.
“I don’t demand to know,” Major West said, adding that there is a system to ensure that the confidentiality of someone’s status is maintained.
Halcyone Peters, trained as a social worker with the U.S government funded Guyana HIV/AIDS Reduction and Prevention Programme (GHARP), is the VCT officer attached to the GDF’s Medical Corps at Camp Ayanganna. Previously, she worked at the GUM Clinic at the Georgetown Public Hospital, the main referral site for those who tested positive for HIV/AIDS.
She says soldiers respond better to HIV-positive status than others, because they “tend to be stronger” as a result of their disciplined military training.
Peters visits various Army bases and works with the peer educators to conduct interactive sessions on HIV/AIDS. “Most of the soldiers are glad to know,” she said, and added that condoms are distributed. Peters said that soldiers would ask for condoms and she is of the opinion that they are responding positively to the messages about the need to practice safe sex.
According to Major West, the GDF has established a policy of continual HIV/AIDS education, so that its ranks would always benefit in making wise decisions when it comes to their sexual behaviour.
Lorraine Garraway, Officer Commanding of the GDF Medical Corps said that soldiers who were diagnosed with HIV were mainly referred to the GUM Clinic, but because of the “stigma” attached to that course of action, this no longer occurs.
She said in most cases, those who test positive for the disease are referred to Lifeline Counselling Services, which would then refer them to the St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, which administers free Anti-Retrovirals (ARVs) paid for by the Ministry of Health.
Major West hopes that as the GDF continues to receive assistance, ARVs could be administered on-site. He hopes too that the GDF will be able to offer dietary supplements to its ranks with the disease, so that they can continue to live a healthy life.
He said that once a soldier tests positive, the GDF plays a significant role in helping them to disclose the information to their families. The families also benefit from the services the Army provides.
Major West said the services provided by the Army also benefit the communities where the Army works.
“We are part of the society and hence we are directly or indirectly affected by the HIV virus,” Major West said.