Botswana has started providing antiretroviral drugs to soldiers in an effort to mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS on its armed forces.
The Botswana Defence Force (BDF) medical corps, which is coordinating the ARV programme, is to distribute the anti-AIDS drugs at three sites: Thebephatswa Air Base, 90 km west of the capital, Gaborone; a barracks in Francistown, the country's second city; and at Sir Seretse Khama barracks in the capital.
The programme, described as "a key watershed in safeguarding the security of the nation", is expected to target an estimated 5,000 infected soldiers and their dependents.
Lekitlanye Ovuya, the BDF medical corps superintendent, labelled the programme "an aggressive commitment to expand a multisectoral response to fight the epidemic", and explained that troop deployment would not hinder treatment, as the ARV sites would be interlinked.
While there are no firm figures for the level of HIV infection in the armed forces, the incidence is expected to mirror, if not eclipse, the country's 25 percent prevalence rate.
Recent research conducted by UNAIDS noted that military personnel were especially vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. This was exacerbated by several aspects of the military environment, such as an age group at greatest risk of HIV infection (15-24 years); a military ethos that encouraged risk-taking; and lengthy periods away from home, which could lead to purchasing sex to relieve loneliness.
The UN agency underscored concerns that the high level of HIV/AIDS in the military could have an impact on overall preparedness, including the loss of experience and skills, training capacity, and the high cost of replacement training.
Dr Ernest Darkoh, operations manager of Botswana's national drug rollout programme, dispelled the belief that widespread availability of ARV therapy would encourage people to revert to risky sexual behaviour.
"Our experience in Botswana has been the contrary: we have found that the availability of treatment has served as a driver for people to know their status," he told IRIN.
However, Darkoh added that campaigns urging safer sex practices had not made a significant impact on sexual behaviour.