Three years ago, almost all Zambian soldiers did not know their HIV status, and those few who did chose not to disclose their status in fear that it may jeopardize their standing in the military. But today there are signs of progress to reduce the stigma associated with HIV, and halt the onward march of the AIDS epidemic in the Zambian military.
The HIV infection among uniformed forces is estimated to be significantly higher than the 16% national adult prevalence. Soldiers and police are at high risk of catching and spreading the lethal virus that causes AIDS because of their age, mobility, and access to alcohol and casual sex.
Mindful of the thinning ranks of the uniformed men and women, Zambia’s Defense Force Medical Services, in partnership with Project Concern International, rolled out a mobile HIV testing and counseling unit in August 2006. The mobile unit offers access to free and confidential counseling, testing, and treatment services at most Zambian Defense Force units in the country. The project is paid for by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
Since the launch of the mobile unit, 2,160 members of the military have been counseled and tested. The progress in combating stigma was illustrated recently in Eastern Province when a support group of 15 soldiers and their spouses proudly wore T-shirts that read: “Living healthy, positive, and long.” One of them said, “We put these T-shirts on today because we want people to know we are proud of who we are. We are tired of hiding.”
The support group was formed two years ago but its meetings had been kept secret. Soldiers who were HIV positive sneaked out to get care and treatment, and those on anti-retroviral drugs arranged ways to collect their medications at specific times to remain undetected. “But it’s time we become open about our status,” said an Army sergeant. “That’s the only way we will really be able to help our community.”
Lt. Joseph Chikonkolo, commenting on the jovial mood of those waiting their turn with the mobile unit’s HIV counselor, said: “The response to the mobile team has been incredible. The support group will be important now in reducing stigma, because they have been here in our midst. They will show that with treatment, you can keep on living.”