Health & Medicine

New AIDS policy for South African military

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Story by the BBC correspondent Karen Allen for PRI's "The World"

On the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert, a fighting force is at work. Some 6,000 members of South Africa's National Defense Force are taking part in Exercise Seboka. It comes just weeks after the military was forced to review its position in the recruitment, deployment and promotion of HIV positive staff.

"It's not as if now that the flood gates are open for sick people to be deployed," said Lt. General VJ Ramlakan, the Surgeon General of the South African National Defense Force. "If you are HIV and sick, clearly you will not be in the front line. If you are physically fit and you're just HIV positive, then your HIV positive status would be minimized ..."

Sikumbuzo Maphumulo, the attorey who brought the test case, explains: "It means that people who are HIV positive in our military -- who for instance, are on treatment and have stabilized on treatment -- they meet minimum requirements, they will now qualify to be recruited and deployed and promoted which was not the case in the past.

It's too early for the troops of the battle school to asses what this means, but Helmoed Roemer Heitman, a defense analyst, says the move is a step too far. Though the new rules mean that an HIV positive soldier has to meet the fitness requirements that matches a particular job, he considers it a breach of trust for the ordinary soldier.

"One of the things the ordinary soldier does demand of his leadership is that we do not expose him to unnecessary risk, and what we're doing here is exposing him to unnecessary risk," said Heitman. "It's bad enough we send them out to live under harsh conditions and get shot at, now we’re putting them in a situation where one of their own comrades could totally inadvertently infect them with a fatal disease."

Others argue the risk to fellow soldiers is small, and the reality is that many who serve in the South African Defense Force are already HIV positive, whether they know it or not.

Studies have found that between 25 and 30 percent of soldiers are infected with HIV, and that most soldiers acquire the disease while on deployment.

On a beach during his off duty hours, a soldier is being put through a tough fitness regime. He discovered he had the AIDS virus eight years ago and is now on anti-retroviral drugs. He's a platoon sergeant in charge of some 36 soldiers, but his HIV status has hampered his career prospects and chances of doing peace keeping duties overseas.

For a defense force that's had to adapt since the end of apartheid, it's hard to find soldiers opposed to the change.

"The people I work with, we've had this conversation," said one soldier. "It's not really a problem. We'd just like to know, nothing be a secret."

Another soldier adds: "You'd always rather want to know if there’s someone amongst you that has, is infected with it because it makes it safer for the rest of the guys."

The military may have been forced to open its doors by the courts, but as one of the biggest troop contributing countries with 3,000 peace keepers in Darfur, Congo and Burundi, the South African Defense Force can't afford to lose the experienced men and women in whom it's invested so much. In part, this new AIDS policy is a reflection of that.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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