By Fasalie Sulaiman Kamara
Deputy chief of mission and Charge d’ Affaires of the US embassy in Sierra Leone says her country is unwavering in its commitment to achieve an AIDS-free generation.
Kathleen FitzGibbon said “we need to make sure that every child born to a member of the Republic of Sierra Armed Forces (RSLAF) family is born HIV-free”. She told a huge gathering of military men, women and their families at the joint communication unit on Wilberforce as part of this year’s celebration of World Aids Day.
She said they had committed resources and shared responsibility in Sub-Saharan Africa, noting that new global HIV infections rate had declined to nearly 33 percent over the past decade, and AIDS-related mortality decreased by 32 percent since its peak in 2005.
“We have every right to be proud about this result”, she said, adding that they had the right to proclaim that they did not retreat nor were they afraid of the problem.
“Our work with the RSLAF has touched the lives of thousands of our military friends. But we cannot lose this momentum”, the deputy chief of mission assured, while urging that they must continue with smart investments that would allow people to get tested, treated and counselled.
She said education on stigma and prevention of infection must continue among communities.
“AIDS was truly a death sentence in Africa. AIDS threatened the very foundation of societies, creating millions of orphans, stalling economic development and leaving countries stuck in poverty”, she recalled.
Lt. Colonel James Ruffing of the US Embassy said that ending AIDS was a shared responsibility.
“Here in Sierra Leone, we need to continue to work together to increase our efforts in the prevention of, and response to, AIDS. We have come together to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS in the military. We have saved lives. We have ensured positive pregnant women deliver healthy negative babies,” he said.
The US Army officer observed that what was remarkable about the programme was the fact that it was the first HIV and AIDS programme for uniformed personnel in Sierra Leone and had supported over 8,000 military personnel and their families with testing facilities, prevention messages and overall general sexual health.
Sierra Leone’s Chief of Defense Staff, Major General Samuel Omar Williams thanked the US department of defense for its support to RSLAF and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
He said that the training of peer educators would help reduce the prevalence among military personnel.
“HIV/AIDS figures among serving personnel are difficult to pin down”, he said, acknowledging that UN studies showed that HIV/AIDS prevalence among serving personnel in peace time was 2.5 percent higher than civilians and that figure was even twice higher in conflict times.
He said it was a policy that all serving RSLAF personnel living with HIV should be maintained in the force.
“New recruits and soldiers preparing for combat operations elsewhere will be tested for HIV”, he said, noting that new recruits with HIV were not allowed in the military and serving personnel with HIV were also not allowed to join combat operations elsewhere.
Major General Williams said studies showed that high-ranking officers were more likely to be infected with HIV than low-ranking soldiers. “On the contrary, low rank officers are likely to listen to counselling than high rank officers”, he said, adding that treatment was problematic because of stigma and bad topography of the country.
Representing NETHIPS, the network of persons living with the virus, Joanna Sawyer called on the nation to partner with them and support the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“80,000 Sierra Leoneans are treated with antiretroviral, restoring dignity and sustainability of families”, she said, adding that attempts to cut down on funding would undermine not only the fight against HIV but also that of mortality.
(C) Politico 06/12/13